Ran Prieur

"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."

- Steven Wright

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January 30. Quick loose end from yesterday. I said a religion's object of focus "has no practical value, but great psychological value." But nothing has more practical value than motivation! I should have framed the distinction as being between external and internal practical value. And I'm wondering if it's even possible to get both from the same thing. I've started looking at the meditation subreddit, and for some people, meditation is a path to becoming a better person, while other people say you have to let go of the expectation that meditation will help you in any way, because only then can you do it right.


January 29. I want to say a little more about religion, and in general about old things coming back. A reader was asking me about "nomadic communities arising" as states and economies break down. My answer was, I don't see old-world nomads coming back, but nomadism might emerge in new ways. Already, people are changing jobs much more often than in the 1950's. And a lot more people are living in their cars.

It's the same with religion -- I don't think we're going to see more people praying to a sky father deity, but we might see new trends that only look like religions if we shift the definition. My latest definition is: a community of people united by a point of focus, which has no practical value, but great psychological value. If the object of your religion had practical value, if you liked it because it was good for something else, then that other thing would be what's really important. The religious object must be self-justifying.

So money can't be the focus of a religion, because money is good for other things. The actual god of capitalism is not money, but increasing money. Both as a society, and as an individual, you're never supposed to say, "Okay, we've grown our wealth enough now, we can quit." The game is to keep it growing forever. I think that game is dying, and in fifty years everyone will be talking about sustainable zero growth, or smooth degrowth.

I do see a big new thing, something that's not considered a religion, but a lot of people are focusing on it to give meaning to their lives, and it's both self-justifying and impractical: colonizing Mars. It's not physically impossible, but it's way beyond our present technology, and Mars will never be as hospitable as the planet where we already live -- which we've been busily de-terraforming for thousands of years.

Colonizing Mars is only the most dignified of several new points of focus inspired by science, including reversal of aging, unlimited energy, uploading consciousness, and the singularity. Or you could say all of these (and also economic growth) are just different denominations of the religion of progress.


January 25. I've done too much heavy thinking this week, so today I want to write about TV shows. We've just finished season one of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and Future Man. They're both sci-fi comedies where an ordinary guy is swept up in crazy adventures driven by time travel. The two protagonists, played by Elijah Wood and Josh Hutcherson, even look the same.

Beyond that, the shows are totally different. In Dirk Gently, the plot is like a giant puzzle. In the first episode you have no idea what's going on, and then gradually the pieces fall into place, until it all makes sense at the end. And holding the puzzle together is a metaphysics of time travel where it's impossible to change anything.

Future Man allows big changes, including multiple timelines, and the plot feels like headlong improvisation. It's also better written. Dirk Gently has some boring scenes, and a lot of dumb fights between characters who should be on the same side. In Future Man the motivations are clean, the storytelling is tight, and the dialogue is brilliant.

In Dirk Gently, the characters are like widgets to move the plot, and there's only one who I really like, a "holistic assassin" played by Fiona Dourif, who kills people seemingly at random, but of course it's all connected, and as long as she stays on the right path, she has luck that makes it impossible to harm her.

In Future Man, some characters have different personalities in different timelines, and the two best characters, Tiger and Wolf, start out as brutal warriors from a dystopian future, and gradually become more human and more complex. Most of this happens in my favorite episode, Beyond the TruffleDome. There's also a hilarious episode, Pandora's Mailbox, where they break into James Cameron's house.

Leigh Ann has been watching a third time travel show, 11.22.63, where James Franco goes back to try to save JFK. It has a really interesting time travel rule, where the past pushes back against attempts to change it, and it's not clear if big changes are even possible. But I hate Stephen King, with his Norman Rockwell vibe and his black-and-white morality.

Anyway, Future Man season two is out on Hulu, and we haven't started it yet, but I'm hopeful, because season one is the closest thing I've seen, so far, to the way I try to write fiction: funny, profound, dense, and unpredictable. There are even flashes of beautiful language, like this line from the finale: "Dingo plucked me from a Biotic necrochamber." Or this bit of poetry from the pilot: "Everything in Biotic Wars is true -- the Biotics, the wars, everything."


January 23. In the last post, I wrote, "If I have to do some cleaning, I forget the entire context of why I'm doing it, and just focus completely on the task itself." Tess writes:

I used to do exactly this when I was a novice nun because I spent hours doing manual work like cleaning and laundry. There were very precise rules about how everything should be done, and I knew that it would drive me crazy if I thought too much about other things I preferred to be doing.

So I focused all my attention on my senses, the light coming through the windows, the smell of the air, the texture of the bed linen I was ironing or folding, the smoothness of the cloth running along the kitchen work surfaces and so on. I ended up appreciating the moment so much that I lost all interest in trying to finish early so I could do something 'more interesting'.

Now I'm wondering, why is this only done in religious communities? Couldn't someone start a secular monastery, and say, "We're just going to give you a bunch of work, and if you think about it right, you'll feel good."

Tess writes, "The joy is kinda secondary and would go away if you made it the goal." I'm also thinking of a quote from Christopher Lasch: "The secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy." And it's oddly similar to a rule in fiction writing, that I saw the other day in this reddit comment: "If the plan is explained beforehand, it will fail. If it's not, it will succeed."

For some reason, happiness only comes from where we're not looking. So any institution that makes people happy, has to turn their attention elsewhere, and the simplest way is to have one point of fixation, that's the same for everyone, and while they're all looking at that thing, the happiness sneaks in sideways.

You could even use that as a definition of religion. Around 2005 I spent a month at the Twin Oaks community, which seems to be secular, but you could argue that their religion, their point of fixation, is the ideal of community.

Could you argue that capitalism is a religion, whose point of fixation is money? This subject is too big, so I'll cut it short with this thought: Of the many differences between money and God, the most important is that money can be used to transform work into power over others.


January 21. Odds and ends. A couple readers have challenged me on feelings vs thoughts, which has changed my thinking a bit, and I just wrote this in an email:

Everything we do comes from feelings, and the stuff that seems to come from thoughts, is coming from thoughts that we've chosen to listen to because they rationalize hidden feelings. So the secret of motivation is to find those hidden feelings, and tune into them, because they're stronger than thoughts.

I go to the gym because I remember, from other times, that afterwards I felt good and was glad I went. But all the feeling is gone from those memories. I have to use thoughts and willpower to jump the gap. So I'm wondering if highly motivated people just have better feeling-memory, and if it's possible to develop it.

Lately I've been making some progress in motivation by using my superpower: narrowly focusing my attention. For example, if I have to do some cleaning, I forget the entire context of why I'm doing it (to fit in with a culture whose standards of cleanliness are a waste of energy and a trick to avoid boredom), and just focus completely on the task itself. The book of Ecclesiastes said it best: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."

New subject. Over on Hacker News, I just saw this article, The bed that saved me from the Taliban, which contained this description of the emotional vibe of the shooters: "Each time they would laugh afterwards, like they were just playing around, or like it was a big party or something." And I made this comment:

Terrorists in TV and movies are never like this. They're always super-serious evil, like Voldemort, like nobody ever is in real life. I wonder how much violence could be prevented if Hollywood didn't give us such a bullshit view of human nature.

Last week this was posted on the subreddit: The nightmares of the past about today. It's a long and thoughtful blog post about dystopian fiction in the late 1800's. My favorite bit: "Art is not the seed of wealth. Art is its fruit."

Posted on the subreddit yesterday, Is religion a universal in human culture or an academic invention? It's a subtle point. The author is not disputing the reality of all the stuff that we call religion, but arguing that the line between religion and not-religion is artificial, and that what we generalize as religion is better viewed as "a patchwork of particular beliefs, practices and experiences."

Also from Aeon.co, a nice article about Cosmopsychism, with some of the same ideas I mentioned in my December 3 post.


January 19. Fun links for the weekend, starting with three from reddit. What short YouTube video (30 seconds or less) makes you laugh uncontrollably every time you watch it? My favorite is Joaquin Phoenix's forehead.

I've started looking at the Casual Conversation subreddit, which is less active than Ask Reddit, but has a nicer vibe. This hilarious thread, I just realized I could let the shower warm up before stepping in, is full of other stories of people taking a long time to figure out obvious stuff.

And just this week, a post on Casual Conversation led to a new subreddit, BrokeHobbies. It's a response to all the hobby subreddits that have become elitist, where you get downvoted for posting something made without expensive equipment. I also see a lot of time/attention elitism. People who are obsessively into something, want everyone else to do it 100% perfectly, when I want to know how I can do it with half the work and still have it be pretty good.

And two more great songs from 2018. Viagra Boys are a Swedish band who have somehow made an extremely American song, Sports.

Also from Sweden, Anna von Hausswolff - The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra. It's six minutes of epic vocals over a slow pounding beat. If you like it, Big Blood's Water is slower, dreamier, and more than twice as long. [Update: also check out Angels of Porn II by Nicole Dollanganger].


January 17. First, a loose end from the last post. Josh mentions that wild animals seem to have an internal conflict when they want to get food or water but they're afraid of predators. My first thought was, that's different from humans who feel like playing video games when they should be exercising. But now I'm thinking, what if it's the same? Choosing the water, and risking being eaten, is like choosing the game, and risking death from heart disease.

One difference is, indecisive animals are torn between two feelings, while humans are smart enough to mentally understand dangers and opportunities that we don't feel, so we're torn between feelings and thoughts. And that leads me to a speculative definition of neuroticism: the distress that arises when we realize that our feelings are not reliable guides for our actions. So as our world gets more complex and alien, our feelings become less reliable, and neuroticism increases.

Related: What's Causing the Rise of Hoarding Disorder? I've been hearing a lot lately about Marie Kondo, a decluttering guru with a show on Netflix. Her big idea is sparking joy. You look at your possessions and ask if this or that sparks joy, and the more you do it, the more skilled you get at sensing your own positive feelings and acting on them.

My thought on hoarding, and the cure for hoarding, is that it's about animism. Quoting my December 5 post:

Our nature-based ancestors were animist, because almost everything in their world was self-organizing, and could be realistically viewed as a person. Even a tool would be made by the person using the tool, or by someone they knew, so it would already be integrated into the world of people and stories.

Now manufacturing has surrounded us with mass-produced objects, and we don't have a clear sense of how to assign meaning to all these things. From the article:

Rather than see an object as a member of a large group (say, one of 42 black T-shirts), [hoarders] see it as singular, unique, special. Each black T-shirt is perceived apart from the others and carries its own history, significance, and worth.

The genius of Marie Kondo is not fighting animism, but embracing it: Go ahead and think of all your objects as people, and then politely send away the ones that aren't making you happy.


January 15. I've been meaning to post this for a month: Why willpower is overrated. It's a great article about the surprising evidence that self-control and willpower are different things.

More precisely, there are people who report having high self-control, and there are people who do well on cognitive tests measuring the power of the mind to overrule habit and instinct -- but there's little or no correlation between those groups. People who actually exercise a lot of willpower to get through the day, are not more successful, only more depleted.

The most likely explanation: people who report high self-control are experiencing less temptation. Somehow, they just have more overlap between what they're supposed to be doing and what they feel like doing.

Here I would add a distinction between positive and negative willpower: forcing yourself to do stuff, vs stopping yourself from doing stuff. Those seem to me like different skills, because I'm not much tempted by vices, but my life sometimes feels like climbing a mountain of chores.

Of course these problems are caused by human society. Wild animals have no conflict between what they feel like doing and what's good for them to do -- unless they're facing a trap. We have accidentally turned our world into a trap for human nature, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

So our best move is to change our inner worlds, so that our feelings and habits lead us more often in the right direction. I'm not sure how to do that, but I think it's possible.

By the way, those "very hard" cognitive tests in the article are easy for me. I'm not sure what to make of that.


January 11. Stray links. Iron Is the New Cholesterol, with elevated iron being linked to a bunch of diseases. It seems to only be a problem for people whose bodies can't regulate iron absorption, but there's not much room for error, because the only way we lose iron is by bleeding. That's why I donate blood. I mean, it's nice to help people, but even if they dumped it down the drain, I would still do it. Psychologically, it feels like an oil change, and physically, for a few days after, I get stronger highs from weed, and food tastes better.

International System of Units overhauled in historic vote. The kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin, and the mole used to be defined by measuring actual objects, and from now on they'll be defined according to scientific constants. I can't put my finger on it, but this seems metaphysically important, as if science is now untethered from matter, and drifting in a realm of mind -- or fixed in a realm of mind, while the world of matter changes and no one notices.

The year social networks were no longer social. The idea is, internet communities used to be based on people having common interests. Then Facebook ruined everything, redefining social networks as everyone you know, and everyone who knows them, and so on, whether or not you have anything in common. That trend has gone too far, and the author wants us to go back to private communities based on common interests -- but he doesn't say it's actually happening. When a social critic says "it's time" to do something, you can be pretty sure that the best time to do it was in the past, and the time it will actually be done is in the future.

And a scary reddit thread, What's the most "Black Mirror" thing that's actually happening?


January 9. Taking another angle on Monday's subject, the thing that's really bothering me lately, about most TV and movies, is how the reactions of the characters are so rote, so mindlessly fixed. Once someone is established as a certain kind of person, you always know what they're going to do, even down to their tone of voice.

Then it occurred to me, most of us are doing the same thing, internally. Just like hack writers, we think we're making creative choices, when really we're following rules that we're not even consciously aware of. It reminds me of something Gurdjieff said, that most human psychology is just mechanics. Of course the cure is mindfulness, to watch inside yourself, notice those rules and habits, and practice doing things differently.

Back to fiction, here's a definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: Tragedy is where the characters do exactly what they're expected to do, and it destroys them; comedy is where the characters do surprising things, and it makes them happy.


January 7. After last week's post I got some great feedback, including the idea that ritual is related to mindfulness -- which sounds right, but it also sounds right that rituals are mindless. So I'm not sure, but probably different things are getting bundled into the same word.

Anyway, Kevin mentions the tightness of American social rituals, all the things you have to do exactly right to not be considered weird. And that reminds me of this classic Adam Curtis post from 2011, Learning To Hug. It's about how television tells us how to be emotionally authentic, in a way that's full of hidden rules and ultimately artificial.

And that goes back to what I thought was an off-topic post about Mortal Engines. In the books, Hester Shaw is surly, moody, fierce, and mostly selfish. She's a great character and she stays that way. In the movie she starts out a little bit like that, and soon becomes a normal Hollywood Hero. In the book, Thaddeus Valentine is morally complex, and the movie makes him a normal Hollywood Villain.

Now, Curtis is talking about real people behaving in a fake way when they know they're on television, and I'm talking about screenwriters and directors making fictional characters bland and predictable. But they all have the same motivation: in front of an audience, they're afraid of being weird.

I think this is an unexpected danger of technology. Our primate ancestors needed some urge for conformity, to keep their tribes stable. Now, high-tech media has made all humans into one tribe, with only one way to be human. And what's it like?

We already know that crowdsourcing ruins creativity. This TED Talk covers some evidence. So my thesis is that when a culture, through technology, increases the number of people who are all watching each other, normal human behavior becomes less alive, and the culture declines.

But my next thought is, there's plenty of entertainment modeling human behavior that's more real and interesting, when you move from blockbusters toward movies and TV made for niche audiences, and when you move from serious fiction toward comedy. So maybe the global monoculture, rather than being doomed, can stay alive if it keeps integrating stuff from the edges.


January 5. So last night Leigh Ann and I went to see Mortal Engines in the theater. Philip Reeve's four-book Mortal Engines series is my favorite sci-fi of this century, with brilliant world-building, good storytelling, sharp characters, and a fun breezy style. The movie is well cast, which must be the easiest thing to do in book-to-movie adaptations. And the CGI really brings Reeve's world to life.

Otherwise it sucks. They change the book's story in dumber and dumber ways until it's basically Star Wars, and the characters and dialogue are worse than daytime TV. In one scene, a sad Frankenstein-like cyborg looks at a metal doll and says, "It has no heart.... like me." Everything in this movie is that obvious.

I even gave it the benefit of seeing it high. When I watch a great TV show high, like Scream Queens, I can see how every detail sparkles with creative zest: the set design, the music, the expressions of the actors. But Mortal Engines, except for the CGI, is just flat.

By the way, a few months ago I negatively reviewed the TV show Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and I've changed my mind. I still think it's flawed, but it gets better, especially episodes 8 and 9, where it has the chance to go really dark, and backs off to still pretty dark. And there's just something about it that makes me look forward to watching it, which is rare.


January 3. The other day I wondered "whether my immunity to ritual is related to my life-long struggles with motivation." Now I'll explain what I meant. When I see people doing a ritual, I'm like "Why are they wasting time on that boring and unnecessary behavior?" They must be getting something out of it that I can't see. Thus my definition:

A ritual is a highly predictable behavior, which might seem like a chore to people who don't understand it, but actually energizes the people who do it. Or, a ritual is an engine for turning activity into motivation.

On a personal level, I suspect that physical rituals don't work for me because of my poor mind-body integration. I have to use a lot of conscious attention to not constantly bump into things, and even after 25 years of flossing my teeth every night, it's still not something I feel like doing. Meanwhile, it seems like other people can get into a groove, where their body just does the right thing without guidance from their head, and where familiar physical actions feel good to them.

There are a lot of other directions to go with this. How are mental rituals different from physical rituals? How are rituals different from habits, including bad habits? Where do games fit in? How are rituals related to culture, to childhood imprinting, to personality?

Is our civilization failing because useful activity has been de-ritualized, so that it feels draining instead of energizing? How do rituals compare with other ways of motivating people, like grand narratives or reward-and-punishment?

Finally, a sci-fi idea. What if we had a technology to instantly make behaviors compulsive? Like you zap your head while washing a dish, and suddenly you love washing dishes. That would solve the problem of low motivation, and create more dangerous problems.


January 1, 2019. New Year's Day, and thinking about metaphors in the spectacle. A Rose Bowl ref just leapt and caught the string of a balloon, and popped it. The gif will surely be a meme. As an omen for 2019, what could it represent? The triumph of authority over fun? Or the triumph of good management over distraction?


December 31. I want to polish off the politics/religion subject before the new year. My take is that humans love to divide the world into home tribe and enemy tribe, and hate on the enemy tribe. That's what I mean by "tribalism", and politics has out-competed religion, as a focus for tribalism, because fewer people take religion seriously, and because pseudo-democracy has created the illusion that ordinary people can influence large-scale politics.

Eric's take is smarter:

Religion and politics are both ways for allocating power and social control. And a way of drawing conflict team boundaries. Their methods vary, but the medium is very much the same: physical force for the control of material property, with a veneer of ideology.

So now that we are in the post-Enlightenment world and nobody can imagine the gods being anywhere but in the sky, invisible, and probably dead, the narrative is done with gods, and the locus of power can be brought back to Earth and we don't need so many excuses to put it in the hands of a secular human elite.

One more link to finish the year, an AskReddit thread: What small change did you make in 2018 that has made your life notably better?


December 30. After some feedback, and more thinking, I've decided that defining "religion" is a distraction. There are a bunch of things that might be part of that definition, and rather than arguing about whether this or that thing belongs on this or that side of the religion/not-religion line, it's more helpful to just look at those things and what's going on with them.

John mentions ritual. I didn't consider that as part of my definition, because I don't get ritual. I've never encountered anything called a ritual that works for me. Now I'm wondering why that is, and whether my immunity to ritual is related to my life-long struggles with motivation.

Another feature of classic religions is brutal disagreement. In the old days, you could get killed for saying something slightly weird about God. Now I could stand up and say the Old Testament Jehovah was an evil space alien, and people might be like, "that's cool" or "that's dumb," but nobody would get mad.

Now, at least in the developed world, the ideas that people get mad about are not metaphysical but political. Or, our most intense disagreements are not about some unseen world, but the world in front of us. Strangely, this has happened while the number of cameras has increased.


December 28. I wanted to post some afterthoughts about materialism and science, including an explanation of how the paranormal challenges our whole way of framing subjective and objective, which is related to how we think about mind and matter. What would the scientific method look like, if we saw mind as fundamental, or if we saw subjective/objective as a continuum instead of either/or?

But I'm not smart enough for that today, so I'll just write about weed.

This deleted reddit thread has some good thoughts about cannabis anxiety, including a nurse pointing out that THC lowers blood pressure, which can make the heart speed up, which can trick the mind into feeling anxiety. This TED talk, which I posted last month, has more details about how the brain creates emotions. My own theory is that cannabis temporarily increases emotional intelligence, enough to make us aware of all the mistakes we've been making.

And a scientific article, Rapid Changes in CB1 Receptor Availability in Cannabis Dependent Males after Abstinence from Cannabis. Basically, a two day tolerance break clears your brain's cannabinoid receptors so well that it's hard to measure the difference between two days and 28 days -- and yet, "Despite 4 weeks of abstinence, [receptor] availability in [stoners] did not reach healthy control levels."

I would add, recovery is about more than just clearing cannabinoid receptors -- it's about getting used to being sober again. I think there are parts of my consciousness that go numb when I'm high, like an arm goes numb when you lie on it, and even after the blood is flowing, it still prickles with pain and needs more time to work well.


Christmas Day, 2018. A couple weeks ago I mentioned Adam Curtis's prediction, "there's going to be a resurgence of religion," and since then I've been puzzling about how to define that word. With some help from Eric, this is what I've come up with:

A religion is a community of people united by a foundational belief. With so much uncertainty in life, it's practical to pick one thing that you refuse to doubt, and that belief is like the foundation of a building, or the anchor of a ship, or the seed of a crystal, for your whole model of reality.

Paradoxically, crazier religious beliefs are more robust. It's like people are boasting about the power of their faith, that they can truly believe something as loopy as flat-earthism. (Flat-earthism also offers something taken away by modernity: unseen worlds that you can walk to.)

In the old days, religion ran in families -- not just "you kids have to go to church," but people who really wanted to keep believing the same stuff for centuries. I think this is because our foundational beliefs are usually connected to whatever is the closest thing we've had to a transcendent experience. So the most magical thing kids would do, and later their most awesome memory, would be church events with their families.

That changed when we invented technologies that created stronger experiences than going to church, like television and psychedelic drugs. I'm not a Christian, because the story of the son of God dying for our sins doesn't resonate with me. Instead, I suspect that this is a badly run prison world, like on Hogan's Heroes, or that we live in some kind of fate-dense exile, like on Gilligan's Island.

Still, I'm grateful for being raised Catholic, because even though the nuns wore normal clothing, and the hymn singers looked like hippies, somehow I caught a precious vibe of epic spirituality. It's not a coincidence that my favorite sci-fi author (Roger Zelazny) and singer-songwriter (Colleen Kinsella) are also ex-Catholics.

If we do get a resurgence of religion, I'm wondering what the foundational beliefs will be. I remember a favorite Bible quote of my old priest: "The stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone."





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