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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December 3. First, two loose ends from last week. On the subreddit, 2handband has a lot to say about the origins of the blues. And on the subject of young people, this long article explores some theories for why they're having less sex. My own guess is that newer generations have higher emotional intelligence, so they're more aware of all the emotional messiness around sex, while past generations were more likely to be oblivious.

Today's main subject: a new video of a talk by Rupert Sheldrake, Is The Sun Conscious? He makes a strong argument, starting with how the sun was always seen as conscious until Descartes invented mind-body dualism, and arbitrarily decided that only God, angels, and humans have minds. Later that got whittled down to only humans, and then expanded into other animals -- but there's no good place to draw a line and stop it from expanding back into other arrangements of matter, especially if they're self-organizing.

My position on the "hard problem of consciousness" is that it's not a hard problem for anyone. For materialist metaphysics, it's an impossible problem, and it's not a problem at all for any metaphysics that makes consciousness fundamental. There are different flavors of consciousness-based metaphysics, including animism, pantheism, and pan-psychism. I like to think that mind-matter dualism works like the particle-wave dualism of light, where reality can be either matter-based or mind-based, depending on how you look at it. Sheldrake mentions a fascinating model in which mind/body equals future/past equals possibility/resolution in quantum physics.

Later in the video he speculates about what it's like to be the sun, and how it might make conscious decisions about where to shoot its flares. Maybe that's the answer to Fermi's paradox: if a planetary civilization gets too advanced, its electromagnetic emanations become annoying to its sun, which zaps it back to a lower tech level. He also argues that "volitional stars", steering their own galactic orbits, would allow us to explain galactic motion without dark matter. Related article: Is the Universe Conscious? I think this is why physics has stagnated, because it can't get any farther without putting mind back into matter.

This also reminds me of fringe astronomer Halton Arp, who discovered a strong statistical correlation between quasars and nearby galaxies. If quasars are not extremely bright and extremely distant, then their light is being redshifted by something other than recession velocity, which casts doubt on the theory that cosmic redshifts are caused by an expanding universe. Anyway, Arp thinks that quasars are like seeds shot out by galaxies to become new galaxies, and this fits right in with the idea that the universe is alive.

November 30. It's been too long since I've written about music. The other day on Hacker News there was a good article about the origins of acid house. It starts with a synthesizer, the Roland TB-303, which sold terribly and was discontinued. Then a guy bought a used one for $40, without a manual, and he and his buddy just started turning knobs to see what sounds they could find. They ended up using it in ways the manufacturer never imagined, and made a revolutionary recording. Now old 303's sell for thousands of dollars.

The article exaggerates the newness of the sound. Krautrock bands like Cluster had been making spare, hypnotic synth music for years. But there are some brainy ideas about the intersection of art and technology, including the idea that the blues came from musicians with an African heritage, using European instruments differently than they were intended. I see this as a particular case of my general belief, that creativity always starts with doing something you're not supposed to do.

The Hacker News comment thread has a ton of links to other electronic music. I happen to not like acid house, and I haven't listened deeply or broadly to electronica, but I can recommend the bands Holy Fuck and The Octopus Project, and the Machinarium Soundtrack.

November 28. Sort of continuing from my last two posts, two reddit threads about young people. From ten days ago, Older people of Reddit, what do you think is BETTER about today's youth? And from yesterday, Teachers of Reddit, what are some positive trends you have noticed in today's youth?

What comes up again and again is how much nicer they are. This kind of testimony derails the normal ways that old people complain about young people. But I'm wondering if kids are becoming too nice, if humanity is losing its wild spirit. This idea goes back at least as far as Nietzsche. I just found out that sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison died this summer. He was a big influence on my essays, and he had several stories about the last disobedient person in a world where everyone else is tame and bland.

Before I go farther in this subject, I want to try to separate out different trends. It's good that kids are more curious, and less mean, and this could be part of the trend that Lloyd deMause massively simplified in his book The History of Childhood, that child-rearing practices have steadily shifted through history, from neglect and domination toward helpful socialization.

At the same time, I think we're already seeing the cultural numbing of surveillance. Kids have to be nicer now, because they're being watched so closely that they reliably get in trouble for not being nice. What other behaviors are they self-censoring?

I wonder if this is part of the reason for the trend toward right wing politics. Sometimes the left seems to be pushing niceness to suffocating extremes. Personally, I would hop right on board with a cultural movement toward taking bigger risks, and easing the consequences for making mistakes. But I can't get on board with the right wing because my deepest political conviction is being against authority.

November 26. So I thought I wanted to follow up my post from a week ago, but what I have to say isn't interesting enough, and I'm still not feeling smart. The last four days I was really busy, and it wore me out so much that I have back pain and I'm making grunting noises every time I do something. So I'll just post a couple links.

Iron_dwarf has just posted an original essay to the subreddit, The Twilight Saga and The Yearning for Intimacy.

And a scary Washington Post article, Wanted: The 'perfect babysitter'. Must pass AI scan for respect and attitude. (You might have to right click the link and open in a private window to get around the paywall.) This is the same thing China is trying to do with their social credit system: using technology to make judgments about the moral value of individuals.

This is going to be a major political issue of this century, because there are powerful interests with huge incentives for giving people ratings, and they now have the technology to do so; but at the same time, people who know they're being rated on every action, become conformist, timid, and finally neurotic, and it drains the life out of a culture.

I'm not sure how we're going to solve this. We can make laws against keeping personal ratings, or using them to make decisions, but those laws will be broken, in secret, as the normal way of doing business.

Here's a crazy hypothesis: The only realistic solution is the collapse of the technological system. Or: Information technology is self-limiting, because if it gets beyond a certain level, personal ratings are both unavoidable, and fatal to the public spirit.

What I really think is, this not a ceiling against the power of computers, but a bottleneck, which we can pass through by finding a way to do personal ratings that is not toxic to the human spirit -- or might even be good for us. Imagine a human-rating AI that is more tolerant of deviance than the surrounding culture, that doesn't turn us into trembling drones, but dashing rogues, that creates new ways we can get away with being "bad", for the greater good.

I suppose this is a follow-up to last week, because I was talking about cracks where aliveness hides from the light of control, and now I'm thinking of a utopian AI, that sees what you're doing in the cracks, and winks.

November 22. I want to follow up on Monday's post, but I'm busy with holiday stuff and probably won't post again until next week. There are some Thanksgiving-related recipes on my old misc page.

And since this is an American holiday, here's a reddit thread, Americans who have visited other countries, what is America behind on?

November 19. An email conversation has got me thinking about frontiers, and how many different kinds there are. The simplest kind of frontier is geographical. Fifty thousand years ago, if you didn't like your tribe, you and your friends could go over the mountain and start a new tribe. If it's easy to live off the land, and if the human population is low, then it's almost impossible to have a bad society, because everyone will leave it.

It would be cool if we could achieve those conditions again in the future, at a higher level of technology. But right now the geographical frontiers are gone. Every inch of the world is either ruled by some industrial capitalist state, or unlivable. So we have to fight for a better world at the frontiers of culture and politics.

Now those frontiers are also being sealed off, by surveillance. Bruce Schneier explains how Surveillance Kills Freedom By Killing Experimentation:

We don't yet know which subversive ideas and illegal acts of today will become political causes and positive social change tomorrow, but they're around. And they require privacy to germinate. Take away that privacy, and we'll have a much harder time breaking down our inherited moral assumptions.

I believe that some kinds of frontiers are endless. As the light of control probes deeper into the cracks where aliveness hides, aliveness can always find deeper cracks. This is why science will never find a grand unifying theory. And in politics and culture, when nothing can hide from the eyes of control, aliveness can still hide from its understanding. I'm thinking of internet communities where young people hide behind irony and strange language, and the Bob Dylan line, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you?"

Still, it's not enough for aliveness to escape detection. It also needs channels to change the dominant system. And the system needs to allow those channels, or it will stagnate and collapse. I don't think our world is completely locked down, but I think one reason so many people are depressed, is they can't find a way to be alive, that doesn't get them in trouble.

November 15. Going early into the weekend with some optimistic and useful links. For how much room the world has to get better, a reddit thread: What are some of the worst examples of the "We've always done it that way" mindset?

And for some examples of the world getting better in just one generation: What is a parenting technique used on you as a child that you will never use on your own children?

I've probably linked before to this brief 2012 article about the value of not thinking.

With Thanksgiving coming up, How To Make The Perfect Pie. I would add: a good way to add the butter to the flour is to freeze it and use a cheese grater. Also, the way she cuts apples is wasteful. You get more apple if you cut it into quarters first and then cut the cores out, like in this video. Personally I cut the stem skin off with the cores, after quartering.

Related: Sourdough Hands: How Bakers And Bread Are A Microbial Match.

Build a do-it-yourself home air purifier for about $25. You just tape a HEPA furnace filter to a box fan.

Finally, a inspiring and informative reddit post about guerrilla edible landscaping.

November 14. Two links about technology. Is anyone still surprised that Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression? And yet, it's hard to say exactly why. Maybe it's that we're hungry for healthy socializing, and social media is like junk food, offering sugary but unnourishing connections. It could also be what someone says in the Hacker News thread: "The problem with social media is you only see the interesting parts of people's lives, so you're forced into a loop of thinking your life is pointless and boring."

And a scary essay, Why Technology Favors Tyranny:

Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential.

The author focuses on ownership of data, but I'm thinking more about how tech shapes our moment-to-moment lives. Wild animals are practicing deep skills to engage with a living world. A squirrel keeps a watchful eye for hawks while building its nut stash. Meanwhile, a human spots a red light camera and makes a hard stop before turning right, or wonders if an operating system upgrade will disable file sharing. I've said this before, but the author who best saw this century was not Orwell or Huxley -- it was Kafka, and our nightmarish rules and punishments are coming from our own tools.

November 12. Back to psychology, I've been struggling for a few years now with anxiety and free-floating psychic pain. With physical pain, if the doctor asks where it hurts, you usually know exactly where. The best I can describe this feeling is, it's like I'm surrounded by an aura of thousands of needles pointing inward, and every time I think about doing something out in the world, it's like pushing my soul out onto the needles. Lately, my experimental strategy has been to isolate that feeling, not think about the things out in the world that cause anxiety, but just amp up the inner pain as high and long as I can. Of course it feels terrible, but the idea is, eventually I'll get used to it, and that will be the new baseline.

This TEDx talk, Depression and spiritual awakening, seems to describe something similar that happens in the brain. She doesn't explain it well (and I disagree with her about the point of having kids) but the idea is that depression can be processed in a way that thickens the brain like a growing tree.

Another TED talk, by Lisa Feldman Barrett: You aren't at the mercy of your emotions -- your brain creates them. This one is really good at explaining the science. Emotions are not hard-wired in the brain; the brain does not have "emotion circuits". What really happens is, the body starts with a very simple feeling, something that could be interpreted all kinds of ways, and then the brain extrapolates, or embellishes, that body-feeling into a complex emotion, into predictions, and into actions. All of these brain behaviors are learned from our culture and our family, and usually become so habitual that it doesn't occur to us that we can behave any differently.

Depressed people are often told to "just cheer up", which implies two ideas: that we can choose how we feel, and that it's easy. It's probably a harder thing than most people have ever done, but the video hints at how it could be broken into tiny steps. Barrett gives this example: Your heart is pounding before a test, and you could interpret that heart-pounding as crippling panic. Or you could interpret it as your body gearing up to go into battle!

So this is what I've been practicing when I feel an unpleasant emotion: 1) immediately notice, 2) trace the emotion to its simplest root in the body, and 3) move that body energy in a different direction. I haven't found a better mental direction yet, but I've already been able to channel it into an urge for physical exercise.

November 9. Yesterday this was posted to the subreddit, probably because my last post used the word "tribalism": America's Problem Isn't Tribalism -- It's Racism.

The way I use the word, tribalism is a biological urge that we inherited from our primate ancestors: to divide our species into in-group and out-group, and make judgments based on that division. Racism is just one flavor of tribalism, and certainly a big one, but I use the more general word to also capture non-race tribalism. For example, why do Republicans hate solar energy? Not for any rational reason, and it has nothing to do with race, or any supposed Republican values. The right hates solar energy simply because the left thought of it first, so that whole technology has been colored by its association with the enemy monkey tribe.

Moving on, various links on the subject of observation, starting with another article from the Atlantic: That Cute Baby-Bear Video Reveals a Problem With Drones. A viral video shows two bears inspiringly climbing a ridge, but it turns out, they were only climbing it out of fear of the drone that was filming the video! The article's angle is that drones are scary. But I'm thinking about the broader philosophical issue, that we think we're observing how things are, when really we're observing how things respond to our own observation.

A Fighter Pilot's Guide to surviving on the roads. It's about how our eyes and brains are not made for the world of automobile traffic, but there are techniques we can practice to make up for that.

Earlier this year I wrote about the difficulty of dancing, and this comment has some good advice on how to dance better: "Dancing is just painting music with your body. How would you convey this song visually to someone who couldn't hear?"

Finally, a great bit from an interview with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett:

I was trained classically. But one time, I missed my entrance in a very simple Mozart piece because I was listening to to the orchestra and they sounded so beautiful. And the conductor turned around and said, "Don't listen." That ruined me, man. That destroyed my interest in constantly staying in that world, because my main job is listening. If you're improvising and you're not listening, the next second that comes up, you have nothing to say.

November 7. Quick election update. A couple weeks ago I linked to this article about thirteen candidates who are trying to revitalize the Democratic party from below, by having actual progressive positions and not taking corporate money. Of course, they all lost (except Jared Golden in Maine who still has a chance). This is why I've stopped following politics -- it's too depressing. With every election, big money tightens its grip while voters get more distracted by culture wars.

Supposedly these things go in cycles. In the 1930's we had labor movements and the New Deal. In the sixties we had massive cultural upheaval. Then the nineties, if anything, were an authoritarian decade, with economic power being concentrated by globalization. Now the police are militarized, young people are listening to bland music, and the only energy rising from below is ugly tribalism.

A few things still make me optimistic. One is demographic changes -- that is, old people with terrible politics dying. Another is the change in human consciousness if psychedelic drugs become more widely used. And then there's the big structural change, when we finally come to the end of economic growth, which has been the fuel for a lot of things being done the wrong way.

I don't think Donald Trump is a friend of the common man, or an agent of chaos, because if he were either, he would tweet two words that would change the world: fake debt.

November 5. There's an election tomorrow, but I have nothing interesting to say about it. So instead I'll write about my favorite sport, women's soccer. We're about to have the college tournament, and I think West Virginia is most likely to win it. Yesterday I watched them impose their will on third ranked Baylor, and they played with an intensity and precision that I've never seen at the college level, and not even that often at the pro level. [Update: They looked much less impressive losing to Wake Forest in the second round.]

Top-ranked Stanford is more loaded with individual talent. Check out this goal by Catarina Macario, where she catches a ball on her knee, bounces it again off her foot, and casually bends it over four defenders and inside the far post.

My home team, Washington State, does not have the possession offense to go deep in the tournament, but they have a terrifying counterattack. Here's a heroic goal by Morgan Weaver. Most breakaway goals start with the scorer around midfield, but with the team a player down, she's all the way back to defend, and she blows by two defenders in a box-to-box sprint to seal the game.

One more goal, an incredible long-distance strike from Shannon Cooke, to win the SEC tournament for LSU.

November 2. For the weekend, some sci-fi/fantasy TV reviews. You've probably heard that we have our first female Doctor Who. I love the idea, and Jodie Whittaker totally pulls off the role. But through four episodes, this could be the worst written season since the 2005 reboot. The first episode was pretty good, and since then it's been steadily declining in good ideas. Where the Doctor usually has one companion, now she has three, and all three are cardboard nice people who have yet to show as much personality as Donna Noble did in every scene.

I wonder, do the writers think that having a female Doctor is so radical and challenging, that if they do anything else even slightly mind-blowing, it will be too much for the audience to wrap their heads around? Or have they slipped into a daze of self-congratulatory social activism that takes the edge off their creativity? The last two episodes have been explicitly political, one about Rosa Parks, which dumbed down the real story, and the latest one with a villain who's clearly based on Trump.

I watched the first eight episodes of Counterpart, a really well-made spy drama with one sci-fi element: that it's about a conflict between two parallel universes that are pretty much like our world. No spoilers, but at the end of episode eight, the writers had a character do something he would never do. That's forgivable if it sends the plot in an interesting direction, but I was excited about the character behaving realistically, and all the possibilities that would open up. When the writers stuck their fingers in to steer it into cliche, I jumped ship.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina also starts with a great idea: a teenage half-witch in a world where Hogwarts is full-on evil. But the writing is lame on every scale from dialogue to story arc, and they're unable to come up with a single character who's interesting and also a good person. (With the election coming up, it occurs to me that the Democratic Party has the same problem.)

American Horror Story Apocalypse is... eh... pretty good, more fun and less mean than previous seasons. Of all the shows those guys have done, the only one I like is Scream Queens, which was also the shortest lived.

Disenchantment is promising: a Matt Groening fantasy, with the headlong creativity of The Simpsons and Futurama, in a world with castles and magic. It's definitely the best looking of the three shows, but after ten episodes it's still finding its footing.

Maniac is an awesome show about a psychedelic pharmaceutical trial. The best way to adapt Philip K. Dick is not to put his actual stories on the screen, but to take the spirit of his writing and do something original. I think my favorite Dick adaptation is an obscure French film called Barjo.

October 31. I want to go back to last week's subject of whether or not we dwell on mistakes. My first thought was, it's about mind vs body. But then I was watching Monday Night Football, and Cris Collinsworth mentioned that players are haunted for years by their big mistakes on the field. (One exception is Jameis Winston, who seems completely unbothered by mistakes, so they don't shake his confidence, but he also keeps making a lot of them.) The point is, it's not about mind vs body -- it's about consequences, which are mostly social. Then a reader points out that the pain of social mistakes can linger if we don't "close the loop," which could mean talking to the other people involved.

So here's a hypothesis of how technology could be causing the social anxiety epidemic. In a low-tech culture, our social connections are deep and nearby, or you could say we have a small number of high-bandwidth connections. So we can see the full consequences of our actions, we know who we've harmed and who hates us, and we have the opportunity to work it out. But in a high-tech culture, our social connections are thin and far-flung. Even our in-person encounters are often with people we'll never see again. So we often have no idea who we've harmed or who hates us, and no chance for resolution.

You could say, that's their problem, they have to tell me if I'm doing something they don't like. But the way it works in practice is, I'm going through life with good intentions and I think everything's fine, and suddenly someone is really mad at me and I don't know why. That's traumatic, and it makes me hesitant to be around other people.

One song for Halloween: Exuma - Mama Loi, Papa Loi.

October 29. A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley. Basically the people who best understand smart phones are keeping their own kids away from them as long as possible. The Hacker News comment thread looks more deeply at the different kinds of things that are on screens, and how they have changed. The top comment is about how the newest games are being engineered like slot machines, and the sub-comments point out that even slot machines are more regulated than games like Candy Crush.

Some good news, an explanation of Japan's Hometown Tax and how it works to stop cities from draining the wealth of towns. Normally, towns would do all the work of raising and educating people who end up living in Tokyo, and they wouldn't give anything back. So Japan gives you a huge tax break for donating money to your hometown. The twist: you can declare any town to be your hometown, and towns can reward people for donations. So now towns are competing for donations by offering local goods and services.

More good news: Feds Say Hacking DRM to Fix Your Electronics Is Legal

Just submitted to the subreddit, a review of Embrace of the Serpent, a film about two white people learning from a shaman in the Amazon. Iron_dwarf argues that it's actually science fiction, because it's about taking ecological consciousness forward through new technologies.

Finally, Casey Malone, who did the "Living In A Van Down By The River" blog, has turned it into a book: Moving Out.

October 26. Continuing from Wednesday, on the subject of "grounding", I was thinking about how I practice physical skills vs other kinds of skills. If I'm swimming and my arm hits the water at a bad angle, I don't dwell on it for a millisecond; I just immediately try again. But I've made social mistakes that I've dwelled on for years.

Then I read this comment from Eric:

If I hit my thumb with a hammer, I will simply curse and get back to what I was doing, but if some stupid software doesn't work, I get pretty upset.

Trying to explain this, my first thought that the body is grounded, so that the residue of mistakes is immediately drained away; but the mind is not grounded, so the residue of mistakes can circle around into neurosis. Knowing this, we can try to make our minds as as well-grounded as our bodies. But when I think about it more, this issue is deeply related to culture, and how we're penalized by other people for social mistakes -- or for moral mistakes, whatever that means.

New subject, but still psychology. This was posted here on the subreddit: Harmonious Passion vs Obsessive Passion. It's a hard thing to explain, and the article's careful explanation is mostly about whether you're in control of the behavior, or whether it controls you. I would frame it as a continuum rather than either-or. I can play a video game that starts out as healthy fun, and gradually veers into a compulsion to keep doing something I no longer even enjoy.

The more general point is that there's more than one way to "feel like" doing something -- or to feel like not doing something -- and it can be hard to tell these feelings apart, to know which feelings to act on and which feelings to ignore.

A few months ago there was an obscure and fascinating AskReddit question, something like, "How many times out of ten are your gut feelings accurate?" Strangely, almost every answer was at one extreme or the other. If someone says 10/10, they're so intuitively gifted that they're not even bothered by unreliable feelings. If someone says 0/10, they're so intuitively challenged that they have not yet seen any reason to let a feeling overrule rationality -- or maybe their intuition is working on a level they're not even aware of. I probably would have said 0/10 until some time in my twenties, and now, maybe 6/10.

October 24. The other day I quoted Carl Jung: "The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering." Now there's a discussion of that quote on the subreddit, including a link to this page about Jung and suffering, which includes this bit from Barbara Stevens Sullivan:

The most hopeful result of analysis finds the patient suffering more of his pain than he was able to manage before. More of his pain is held in conscious awareness instead of being discharged into behavior that jumbles up his life...

Buddhists make a distinction between pain and suffering, where pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. In that semantic framework, "suffering" would be unskilled processing of pain. So what is skilled processing?

I like the metaphor of surfing, where pain is the wave, and if you can really stay in touch with it, you can ride it down without hardly getting wet; but if you lose focus, you can wipe out and get completely soaked.

Another metaphor is doing the dishes. I remember, back in my 20's, when I developed the habit of washing dirty dishes immediately, instead of letting them build up in the sink. The way most people avoid facing pain, is like letting dishes pile up, except your inner world is a lot more complicated than a sink basin. I think it's possible to become a hunter of pain, where you're constantly watching inside yourself for traces of pain, tracking them down and cleaning them up. The process, like cleaning anything, is to completely engage with the mess.

Another metaphor is grounding the pain, like an electric charge. A friend mentioned this over email, and I asked, "What exactly is the pain grounded to?" She answered, to the earth. And that reminds me of a quote from Keanu Reeves: "It's easy to stay grounded. The ground is very close. And we walk on it every day."

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 - March 2018
April - June 2018
July - September 2018
October 2018 - ?