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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April 9. I've been putting off writing about this, but one month ago I finally had a good LSD trip. A few months earlier, when I tried it the first time, I stayed home and listened to music, and it was nice, but inferior in every way to strong cannabis edibles. The second time, on the same dose, I did two things differently. The first was to vape some weed to overlap the peak of the trip. Cannabis-acid synergy is controversial, because some people get bad trips from both, but for me, the cannabis put a glow on the acid's altered perception.

The second thing I did was to go outside. Immediately I noticed how beautiful the trees were, from the whole shapes to the tiny bifurcations of the leafless twigs. I saw that nature looks like Dr. Seuss -- or really, Dr. Seuss took the weird beauty of nature and made it obvious.

There was never any distortion of senses, but I interpreted things differently. Cars in the distance seemed like tiny cars in a model. It was a trillion years in the future, the whole universe was dead, and I was getting a precious look back in time to when it was alive. I was the protagonist of a fairy tale, with such plot armor that it seemed I could do dangerous things -- but I knew this was an illusion because other people have tested it.

I sat under a footbridge watching the rapids in a stream, and understood that streams are alive. I stopped to look closely at a cluster of shriveled cloudberries, and they were more beautiful than any human art. I passed through a developed area and saw the obvious crudeness of the human-made world compared to the world that made us. It reminded me of the Heraclitus quote: "The Aeon is a child at play with colored balls."

I once saw one of Monet's wheatstack paintings in a museum and wondered: how can a painting of a wheatstack be more moving than an actual wheatstack? Now I know the answer: because we don't know how to look. If we did, the actual wheatstack would always be better. A month later, that aesthetic sense has mostly stuck with me.

April 6. Music for the weekend. There are different kinds of great songs. Some are delicate and complex, with challenging beauty that must be gradually decrypted. Other songs take simple melodies and simple words and pack them into a perfect bundle that makes you jump out of your chair on the first listen. This is a great example of the latter, from 2014: The Fat White Family - Touch The Leather. Leigh Ann and I have had it stuck in our heads all week. There's also an interesting live version.

April 4. Since the subject seems to be in the air lately, I'm going to write about getting older, in the context of how we think about society and our place in it. The cliche is that young people are rebellious and old people join the establishment, but that's not quite how it works.

When you're young, you expect people older than you to have it all figured out. So when the world sucks, it makes sense to react with righteous anger. Now that I'm old, I look at the world and think, "Those poor kids, they don't know what they're doing."

Young people are impatient. They want to see Utopia in their own lifetime. Now I think it's going to take hundreds of years, maybe thousands, before being human is even half as much fun as being a squirrel. I used to want to slay dragons and now I want to plant seeds.

Young people have lots of energy and little tolerance for complexity, so they look for meaning in things that are mentally easy and physically hard. As we get older, we learn to make ourselves happy with less energy and more subtlety. For a young person, the difference between living well and living badly is entirely in what you do. For an old person, the difference is more in how you look at it.

One thing that was not obvious when I was younger: motivation is a really hard problem. If you live a conventional life, that problem is mostly solved for you by other people telling you what to do all day, and if you're lucky, it will be stuff you want to do anyway. To the extent that you're able to do your own thing, motivation becomes your own responsibility, and I see no sign that it gets easier. Doors are always closing and opening, both out in the world and inside you, and it's a permanent challenge to keep looking and moving.

April 2. Some stray links from reddit. Here's a new thread of Mitch Hedberg lines. Other than the one at the top of this page, my favorite is "It's not the photographer's fault bigfoot is blurry."

A reader pointed me to the Maladaptive Daydreaming subreddit. What strikes me about these people is not that they're good at daydreaming, or that they spend a lot of time doing it, but that they feel like they don't control it. This is obvious, but it never occurred to me that you could apply that standard to drugs or video games or anything people do for fun: it's okay if you control it, but not if it controls you. But what is "you"? I'm getting a lot of mileage out of this definition: You are the moment-to-moment choice of where to put your attention.

From a couple weeks ago, a nice comment about meeting Mr. Rogers:

...at that age, a lot of "bad" behavior is really just a kid's imperfect way of expressing and processing big, new emotions. When Mr. Rogers knelt down to talk to me, it was the first time any adult had outright acknowledged my feelings, made me feel safe to express them, and made sure I knew that expressing them was okay.

Finally, a promising new subreddit, Explain Like Caveman. Right now the questions are mostly about caveman subjects, but I look forward to people trying to explain advanced science and philosophy. Here's my caveman explanation of how a particle accelerator works: "Smash rock, make rock small. Some rock too small for eye, too big for head."

March 30. Three links from Nautilus, about what we notice and don't notice.

The Key to Good Luck Is an Open Mind:

"His research is hilarious," says Carter. "He takes people who self-define as lucky and people who don't say they're lucky, and then he puts a $20 bill in the street and the lucky people notice them and pick them up. And unlucky people don't."

Scary AI Is More Fantasia Than Terminator. I would say it like this: AI will do what we tell it to do, not what we want it to do, because what we want it to do is full of all kinds of assumptions that we're not even aware of ourselves.

Are Infants Natural Synaesthetes? "As newborns, we take in nearly everything because we don't yet know what's important. But as useless connections get silenced or trimmed away, a more efficient brain emerges." Now I'm wondering, how much room is there for different cultures to create radically different versions of human consciousness?

Related: a reader sends this dense essay, Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse. "The AI revolution amounts to saturating human cognitive ecology with invasive species, billions of evolutionarily unprecedented systems, all of them camouflaged and carnivorous." Or, the internet is getting so good at hacking our minds to capture and hold our attention, that it's sending human consciousness off the rails.

My personal experience makes me more optimistic. It's getting really hard for me to find entertainment that doesn't bore me, and yet I find nature more and more interesting. This morning I had to wait in the car for a few minutes, and instead of turning on the radio, I just looked at the beautiful complexity of leafless tree branches.

March 28. Monday's post is a good example of why I now see myself as a fiction writer, and blogging is just something I haven't got tired of yet. Because that idea, that a civilization could collapse by trying to force reality to be too objective, is good fiction and completely disreputable nonfiction.

Everyone agrees that "truth" is breaking down. What they mean is, there is an objective external world, and more people are wrong about what it's like. If it turns out there is no objective external world, does that mean we could stop climate change by not believing in it? I don't think it works that way. I do think that physical reality is 100% created by mind, but "you" and "I" are not the agents of that mind. We're more like its hallucinations.

New subject, sort of: It all made sense when we found out we were autistic. Six women in the UK tell their stories, including some stuff about how autism diagnosis is skewed toward male traits, and women are often misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

I've never been to a professional for a diagnosis, but I can relate to a lot of this. It's always seemed like everyone but me is a mind reader, like they're tuning into some broadcast that tells them the right way to do things, and they take it for granted. Not just social things. I remember the roller skating fad in the 70's, and it took me the longest time to figure it out. People said, "You just go. You just move." Really, you angle your toes slightly outward and then alternate pushing your legs to the side and picking your feet up. It's not complicated, but their minds didn't even notice what their bodies were doing for them.

This comes around to the first subject, because the "self" is just the part you happen to notice, of some larger and deeper set of habits and adaptations. You can choose to bring subconscious behaviors into the realm of the conscious, and most people can get by without doing that, but some people have to take conscious charge of subconscious behaviors to do them with any competence.

So here's my wild speculation: that "autism" is part of an ongoing evolution of humanity, in which the conscious mind is being challenged to expand its scope. A different angle: society has become so strange, that more and more bodies are failing to do the right thing automatically, and the head has to get in there to make everything work.

Related: Aliens of Reddit, what are some human things that make absolutely no sense to you?

March 26. Fascinating interview from 2016: The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality. This is a guy at the cutting edge of science, who has concluded that "there are no public physical objects," that reality is made of "points of view," and the math says you can "take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It's conscious agents all the way down."

This reminds me of something I wrote in an email a couple weeks back, about an idea I call pan-solipsism -- somehow, through some hidden dimension of causality, the universe behaves for every person as if they're at the very center. Of course this is the popular new age "you create your own reality" thing, but new agers rarely face the hard philosophical problem: to reconcile the idea that the universe is all in your head, with the idea that we're all in the same universe.

My speculative solution is that the sharing of reality is mostly an illusion. It's like that thing where maybe we see colors differently, and what you see as red I see as blue. But expand that to everything: what you see as "house" or "book" or "money", I see as the incomprehensible components of my own bizarre alien world. And in the slack created by these hidden differences, we each live in an outer world that's largely a projection of our inner world. Even "the brain" is a projection, a symbolic user interface for hacking our own streams of experience.

Getting really weird, I wonder if that's how technology is causing the epidemic of depression and anxiety: by forcing us to inhabit the same world. Physics says there are events where it doesn't make sense to say what happens until they are observed. Maybe even if an event is observed, two observers could still see it differently, and be in partially different universes -- as long as they don't compare notes. Information technology has forced us to do too much note-sharing, and now we all have to compromise to a reality that's satisfying for fewer and fewer people.

Coincidentally, when a quantum function that could go either way is pinned down into being the same way for all observers, it's called collapse.

March 23. Continuing from Wednesday, where I framed "good at dancing" as two definitions with no necessary overlap, Eric writes:

I believe that there is some overlap. Consciously training your body and senses to be receptive and responsive to your partner, then giving your partner movement, stimulus that has been smoothed, reduced, refined so that there is a clear 2-way conversation in (unconscious) body language. Dancing like this is not an intellectual activity, in fact feels opposite of intellectual, but only the greatest dance geniuses can do it without making the conscious effort to build the necessary skills.

Of course I should have known that. I'm not a good dancer, but as a writer, I have exactly that partnership inside myself. There's that voice that spits out words from who knows where, and if I were to put that stuff on the page unfiltered, it would be terrible. But I also couldn't ignore that voice and write anything good. Good art, and good living, are about skillfully walking the line between conscious and subconscious, or rational and sub-rational.

But if art and living are similar skills, then why are highly creative people so often bad at life? I think it's because their subconscious energy, which can illuminate invented worlds, is too wild to be integrated in a world shared with other people -- or at least this world.

On a personal note, I've been doing a lot of work lately to clean up bad subconscious habits, but I still haven't got to the core problem: the lack of overlap between what I feel like doing and what's good for me to do. I wonder what it's like for other people. I mean, every night I force myself to floss my teeth because I know it's good for me -- but most people don't, and if they can't even force themselves to floss, how are they forcing themselves to cook and clean and pay bills and do their jobs? That's why I've become so interested in channeling spontaneity, because I imagine that if I could learn to do it right, I could coast through life instead of having to drag it around.

March 21. Sometimes I think that all disagreements come down to semantics. Or, if we somehow had perfect communication, there would be no conflict -- but then, that depends on your definition of "conflict".

Anyway, after some feedback from the last post, I realize that being "good at dancing" has a range of meanings, which could be framed as two competing definitions with no overlap: one is when the head trains the body to make a set of precise moves; the other is when the body moves on its own. Both kinds of movements become smoother and more complex with practice. I think it's obvious that some cultures are much better than others at loose and spontaneous movement, and that it has something to do with social class and authoritarian politics.

I was thinking it had something to do with intellect, where more cerebral people are also more stiff, but now I'm doubting that, because intellect can be either allied or opposed to authoritarian culture. In Nazi Germany, you had an anti-intellectual ruling party whose members were terrible dancers (definition 2), and an underground culture that was both looser and smarter.

Those people mostly got killed, but their values lived on. I believe that top-down systems, whether inside or outside the body, tend to break down from their own inflexibility, while bottom-up systems... but now I've hit a semantic wall, because what exactly is the "bottom"? The first line of the Tao Te Ching says: the Tao that can be described in language is not really the Tao.

And now I'm getting into theology. Imagine the unknowable Divine, not as an authority we obey, but as a wave we ride.

March 19. I'll continue on music because I just got an email from Eric with two different fertile ideas. First, that "music serves as a cultural marker. Listening to a certain kind of music makes us feel like we belong somewhere."

Suddenly I understand why my musical taste is so "weird" -- I've always felt that I belong nowhere in this world, so I look for music that makes me feel like I belong in some other world that doesn't quite exist. This line from The Picture of Dorian Gray is exactly how I feel about many of my favorite songs:

...the silent spirit that dwelt in dim woodland, and walked unseen in open field, suddenly showing herself, Dryad-like and not afraid, because in his soul who sought for her there had been wakened that wonderful vision to which alone are wonderful things revealed; the mere shapes and patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined, and gaining a kind of symbolical value, as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfect form whose shadow they made real: how strange it all was!

Most people listen to music to feel at home with some human subculture, while I listen to music to talk to God -- typically after breathing cannabis vapors, and sometimes kneeling before two large vintage speakers.

Eric's second idea is that many genres of popular music have their roots in some kind of fringe dance music. As the sound becomes mainstream, people no longer dance to it.

This reminds me of something I often wonder: why are white people so bad at dancing? I think it's because dancing comes from the body, and European culture has been consistently heady for hundreds of years now. That's why Elvis was so popular. Just as television was emerging, he was the only white man whose movements were fluid and not stiff.

What would it take for everyone in the world to be good at dancing?

March 17. Linked the other day on the subreddit, an interview with indie rock star Julian Casablancas about money, music, and politics. I'm not sure where to start. Of course I agree with him that this is a dark age for popular music, but I see his music as part of that dark age. His band's biggest hit, Reptilia, has 95 million YouTube views, and sounds to me like by-the-numbers indie rock, nowhere near as creative as someone like Ezra Furman.

This is a good point:

The Oscars obviously have blind spots, but with movies it's generally the authentic artistic endeavors that get recognized. But when you look at what gets nominated for a Grammy? I don't understand what the hell it's all about.

It's also interesting to compare music with TV, which has been in a golden age for a while now. The 1970's cannot hold a candle to the last ten years of television, so we're not talking about a general cultural decline. I think there's something about the medium of music, in the context of our economy and technology, where popularity has become strongly correlated with blandness.

Casablancas sees the evil music industry excluding the best artists, but I see it the other way around: with cheap home recording and internet distribution, the best artists no longer have to fight for a place at the table of big money. They're happy to stay independent and do exactly what they want, and big money is happy to go on with beautiful people and algorithmic songwriting.

Is it better this way? With all the great TV shows out there, there still has not been a single episode that speaks to my soul the way my favorite songs do. Maybe some future technology will enable visual storytelling to be cheap enough to take the risks to reach that level.

By the way, a 2018 album has emerged as my favorite non-Big Blood album of the decade: Insecure Men. That's the album on YouTube and here's an article about it. I would tag it as space lounge music. The songs have the structure and melody of classic pop, with so much strange beauty layered on top that I guess people find it hard to wrap their ears around it. For an argument that music is getting better, compare Dire Straits' 1985 hit "So Far Away" with Insecure Men's "I Don't Wanna Dance With My Baby".

March 14. Taking the week off from heavy thinking, here are four links from Nautilus. The Case for Making Cities Out of Wood, specifically, wood processed in a new way that makes it as strong as steel but only one sixth the weight.

Why Is There So Much Hate for the Word "Moist"? People imagine that it's about the sound of the word, but studies show that it's completely about the meaning, which people project onto the sound. Similarly: "In one study that exposed Americans and Canadians to different British accents they were unfamiliar with, they couldn't guess with any accuracy which ones belonged to people in the upper classes and which ones to people in the lower classes." But once we know, then the sounds of the accents sound upper or lower class.

Inheritance Is Moving Beyond Genetics and Epigenetics, to weird neo-Lamarckian stuff that we can't completely explain.

This Neural Net Hallucinates Sheep. It's about how artificial intelligence works more by correlation than understanding. So given the kind of landscape that often contains sheep, an AI will identify anything white as a sheep -- yet actual sheep, colored orange, it will mistake for flowers, and it's terribly confused by goats in a tree. The practical upshot: "Want to sneak something past a neural network? In a delightfully cyberpunk twist, surrealism might be the answer. Maybe future secret agents will dress in chicken costumes, or drive cow-spotted cars."

March 12. Some doom from reddit: What significant changes to the environment have you noticed throughout your life?

And some techno-optimism mixed with some doom: What BIG THING is on the verge of happening?

On the lighter side, Concert venue workers, what band/genre of music has the worst fans? Which has the best? There are a lot of nominees for worst, but everyone agrees that metal fans are the best.

March 9. Important new David Graeber essay, How to change the course of human history (thanks MakeTotalDestr0i). The whole thing is worth reading, but I'll try to summarize it.

Graeber wants to overturn the "conventional narrative": that primitive life was good, agriculture changed everything, and now we're stuck in big systems that can only work with hierarchy. Recent archaeology refutes this. There were complex civilizations before agriculture. Then agriculture didn't suddenly capture us -- it was one of many food options, tried and sometimes abandoned over thousands of years. Hierarchy also didn't capture us -- there were cultures where politics were seasonal, authoritarian in summer and anarchist in winter, or vice versa. Prehistory wasn't a row of falling dominoes -- it was a time of massive experimentation.

In Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, "cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen's lives." This leads Graeber to his most radical point, made explicitly in one of the comments: "there is no correlation between scale and hierarchy."

This gives us hope for a better world. But it also leaves a void, by taking away a beautiful answer to an important question: How did the world get so fucked up? If it wasn't agriculture or cities, what was it? If our ancestors experimented and found Utopia, how did they lose it? It's suspicious that we have no written record of a non-repressive large scale society. Did the world get fucked up by writing?

Taking another angle, imagine we're in Utopia now. I mean clearly we're not -- even with all the antidepressants, depression is probably higher now than it's ever been. But imagine if someone from Gobekli Tepe traveled to the present day. What would they like most about our world?

March 7. Loose ends. This new subreddit thread, social bumper cars, has some good discussion of Friday's post. Gene makes an important point, that people with social disorders find each other difficult to be around. So we can't build a social utopia out of total incompetence. But I still think bumper cars are a good metaphor. If we can all develop the skill of being thick-skinned, then we don't need to develop the skill of not saying anything offensive.

Also linked from the subreddit, The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized. I would go even farther, because if you look deeply at things other than luck, it still comes down to luck. What is talent if not luck? Even "hard work" might come down to genetic stamina, or having people around you who are skilled motivators, or that you happen to really enjoy doing something that society happens to find valuable.

New subject: several ex-doomers are writing fiction now. James Kunstler has his World Made By Hand novels, John Michael Greer has written Lovecraftian fantasy, Tim Bennett wrote a novel about aliens, All of the Above, Paul Kingsnorth wrote an acclaimed historical novel called The Wake, and an ex-peak-oiler and reader of this blog, Gregory Jeffers, has just released his second novel.

I find fiction much more rewarding than nonfiction, and I'm only continuing this blog through force of habit. My unusual fear is that my novel will get popular too soon, and complicate my life so that I can't continue writing at the same level.

March 5. I don't have a post today, but do I have some news. This summer I'll be in Europe for a month, from July 10 to August 10. Leigh Ann will be there for a class, so I'll be based with her in Bonn. During the last two weeks we'll be traveling together, and during the first week my sister might join me. If anyone wants to host me, or me and one other person, for a night or two, let me know, ranprieur at gmail. Trains are very expensive, so I'll have to stick to an efficient route. I still need to research buses and possibly hitchhiking.

March 2. Continuing on psychology, this new Nautilus article is about schizophrenics and how they do lot better in developing countries, supposedly because their cultures are more collectivist and value "empathy and social competence".

But the article also mentions autism, which in one model, is the opposite of schizophrenia: "Where an autistic person's sense of self is cripplingly narrow, schizophrenics' selves are cripplingly expansive."

So I'm wondering, would someone on the autism-aspergers spectrum also do better in a more traditional culture? Or worse? This smart Twitter thread (thanks Gabriel) argues that even the developed world demands too much social competence:

You don't need to be on the autism spectrum to lack social tact or find yourself disgusted with the need to demonstrate social tact everywhere. When people talk about "neurodiversity" it's not because there's giant group of oppressed Aspies. It's because Aspergerdom is a cultural symbol of what it means to be undersocialized.

I like Starcraft but my reaction time is never going to get up to the level necessary to compete with the pros. So I play casually. I'd get destroyed if I played with people of even a moderate skill level. This is how undersocialized people see the world of oversocialized people.

I've never been to a professional for a diagnosis, so I don't know if I would come out neurotypical, aspie, or schizoid. But when I imagine my ideal culture, it's like social bumper cars: everyone is having fun, because no matter how big of a mistake you make, nothing bad can happen.

February 28. Continuing from Monday, in this subreddit post, goocy describes a ketamine trip where he became aware of his "subprocesses" -- the different personalities and roles of all the voices in his head. I've had similar experiences on cannabis, but it's vague and dark, like I'm going in there as an undercover boss and finding a nest of snakes. I wonder how many people have the same experience, call it anxiety or paranoia, and avoid it.

Then Myles reminded me about that new chess computer, Alpha Zero, which learned the game from scratch and outplayed a top chess computer, Stockfish, that was running 900 times faster. The old computers look ahead and calculate the value of individual moves, while Alpha Zero somehow evaluates whole-board positions, but the way it works, even the programmers can't say what it's "thinking".

So now I'm wondering, do some of my sub-personalities work like Stockfish and some like Alpha Zero? If some inner voice tells me something that doesn't make sense rationally, how can I tell if it's reliable? Highly successful people can follow their "heart" or "gut" and make consistent good decisions, but I've never seen an explanation of how they do it. Can they somehow tell the difference between reliable and unreliable urges? Or are they somehow free of unreliable urges?

This also reminds me of what Rupert Sheldrake says about "instinct", that biologists have no idea what it is, and just throw that word around to describe behaviors that they cannot yet explain.

February 26. Great reddit thread from the weekend, What's the biggest culture shock you ever experienced?

There was also a good thread about important psychological experiments.

Just lately I've been thinking about psychology and culture in terms of layers. This is all so obvious that it can't be original, but I find this model helpful. The top layer is society, the rules that we have to publicly follow. The next layer down is persona, the way we present ourselves to fit society. Most of us are aware of a difference between how we present ourselves and how we really are. So the next layer down is the "self", what we think of as our true identity.

But the more you look at this level, the more shaky it becomes. What we call the self is not even a thing, more like an interference pattern, a standing wave of habits and strategies and stories that are determined partly from above, by culture, and partly from below, by a still deeper layer of subconscious psychology.

This deeper layer is not intrinsically subconscious -- you could look at it, but you usually don't. But now the language gets tricky, because who are "you"? I think we're talking about two different things. One "you" is the constructed self, that nest of habits and stories; and the other "you" is the ongoing choice of where to put your attention.

Normally, without being aware that we're making a choice, we direct our attention to maintain the constructed self: "There's something I like, there's something I don't like, this is who I am." To direct it differently requires a mental leap, to stop being the person with this set of tastes and values and goals, and start being the project of investigating a wider landscape in which we see that person from the outside.

This is difficult and painful, so why do we do it? Typically it's because the constructed self is dysfunctional, the layers are no longer working together, and this is more likely to happen in a society that changes fast and recklessly.

I'm wondering how many collapses happen because social rules get so far from our unchangeable deep nature that most people can't bridge the gap. I'm also wondering if it's possible to have a human world with only one layer, where society fits our deep nature so perfectly that self-reflection is not necessary.

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 - ?