Ran Prieur

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

- Steven Wright


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June 14. A few more loose ends on confidence. Here's another good definition from a reader: "I feel like confidence is being totally in the flow with one's personal power." The only time I feel like that is when I'm writing. I'm not sure I've ever been in a social flow state.

Of all the things the word confidence can point to, I have identified one of them with enough precision to work on it: I could use more micro-scale decisiveness.

Another reader says "it's worthwhile distinguishing between confidence and self-respect/esteem/regard." I remember when self-esteem was all the rage. Now I almost never hear about it. Trying to put my finger on the difference, self-esteem seems to be more about being, while confidence is more about doing.

And some music for the weekend. My new favorite jazz album (on weed) is Miles Davis's two hour Get Up With It. This review argues that it was influenced by a cocaine-fueled car crash, and the track recorded soonest after the crash was Billy Preston, twelve minutes of very psychedelic funk.

I haven't heard anything really great yet from 2019, but here's a cool little song that's available only on Spotify, The Walking Riots - WWW.

June 12. As expected, I got some good feeback on the subject of confidence. Matt mentions that the etymology of confidence means "with trust", and on the subreddit, Naringas suggests the definition "self-trust". I like that, because the slipperiness of the "self" gives the definition flexibility. You could have (or lack) trust in your perception, your decision making, your resilience, your sanity, even your luck.

Also from the subreddit, Class and Confidence. I was thinking something similar: when you or I have confidence without skill, we don't get away with it for long, but rich people do.

That post is mostly about getting hired for jobs: "Coming from a posh family emboldens many people to think they can do jobs even if they lack requisite qualifications." But now I'm thinking about the trend of bullshit jobs. As more jobs are not based on doing anything useful, there is less reason for confidence to be based on skill.

Imagine a future dystopia, where everything useful is done by machines, and success is completely a function of social skills. But then, what we're calling confidence is a skill, the skill of getting other people to believe in you. Confidence is just not the best word for it. A better word would be charisma, or bravado.

June 10. This week I want to take on the idea of confidence. I've been watching Gordon Ramsay cooking shows, and the way they talk about confidence, you'd think it's more important than actual skill. To prove it's not, imagine that you're picking a doctor to perform surgery on you, and you can get an honest answer to one question. Do you ask "How confident are you?" Or "How good are you?"

The popular idea of confidence makes two assumptions: 1) that the word "confidence" points to a simple thing that we all understand, and 2) that that thing is strongly correlated with success. I disagree with both.

Taking the second first, there are lots of examples of confidence being negatively correlated with success. For example, People With Greater Intellectual Humility Have Superior General Knowledge.

When I look back over my own life, whenever I was confident and not skilled, I might have gained some temporary advantage, but eventually I always crashed and burned. And when I was skilled but not confident... actually that's never happened. When I'm really good at something, I'm automatically confident.

So now I'm wondering why other people value confidence so highly. I see two possibilities. The first is that they're wrong, and confidence is bullshit for them too and they haven't noticed. I have a crazy theory that confidence is what philosophers call epiphenomenal. It seems to be a cause, but really it's entirely an effect. Confidence is just what it feels like to be in the process of succeeding.

The second possibility is that I'm missing something, which has led me to do some heavy thinking about the definition of confidence, assuming it's a good thing. The popular definition is something like the belief that you will succeed, but I don't think confidence is any kind of intellectual belief. At best, believing you will succeed is a mental trick to generate confidence, which is something deeper and more subtle. My best woo-woo definition is your energy leaning forward.

A more measurable definition is the absence of hesitation. This has led me to wonder if confidence is not a positive but a negative: not a thing that makes you succeed, but the absence of certain things that make you fail.

The words "confidence", "overconfidence", and "underconfidence" make it seem like we're talking about three levels of the same mental state, but I think we're talking about three different mental states. Underconfidence is when feelings about failure make you perform worse, usually by hesitating or not taking important risks. Overconfidence is when thoughts about success prevent you from focusing on the task. And confidence is simply the absence of both.

One more thought. The cult of confidence seems to be mostly an American thing, but I wonder if Americans are just on the cutting edge of a global trend, in which hard skills are being taken away by technology; and the easier the skill you're dealing with, the more success is a matter of mental state rather than practice.

June 7. Subreddit thread, Climate change and what we can do about it. I just want to raise a question that's never asked, about lifestyle changes motivated by global issues. The question is: does your individual behavior have spooky influence over the behavior of others? For example, I've recently switched my main meat from ground beef to chicken thighs, because beef has a much larger ecological footprint. Without spooky influence, my effect on global ecology is a drop in the ocean, and the only value of my change is that it might make me feel better. But with spooky influence, who knows? I might actually make a personal difference in the global climate.

This is a serious question. Fringe biologist Rupert Sheldrake has suggested a model for spooky influence that he calls morphic fields. The behavior of any organism can resonate, across any distance, and cause biologically similar organisms (basically the same species) to behave in the same way. And he's found good evidence, which you can read about in his books. For example, people finish the NY Times crossword puzzle faster in the afternoon than in the morning.

The funny thing is, most people don't believe in spooky influence on an intellectual level -- but they act as if they do, when they make lifestyle changes, or they vote, as if they're magically deciding what other people will do. I'm almost the opposite. I believe in morphic fields, and I also believe the physical world is like a metaphor for a deeper world of mind or myth. But I'm not sure how strong my influence is, so I still mostly act as if I'm insignificant.

New subject. The other night I was watching American Ninja Warrior, and I saw a good definition of intelligence. There was a contest where dogs tried to get up a warped wall, and the more athletic breeds made it. Then a cattle dog runs right past the ramp, around to the back of the structure, and up the stairs to the top of the wall. So the definition would be something like, the ability to see a larger context that the less intelligent haven't imagined.

June 5. Monday night James Holzhauer lost on Jeopardy, and the whole drama was fascinating from a mind-behind-the-world perspective. This was the night when Holzhauer would have broken Ken Jennings' money record with even a below average win. But one challenger was such a trivia-head that as a kid he memorized every Trivial Pursuit question. That guy came in third. The other challenger wrote her masters thesis on the difficulty of Jeopardy questions, and watched the show for years calculating her own accuracy on each row of the table.

Now, maybe they set it all up, the strongest challenger on the biggest night, but I think this kind of thing is happening more often without any conscious intent: public spectacle is becoming mythic. The competition wasn't even the most striking thing that happened on the show. Alex Trebek, who has cancer, showed the get-well card that Holzhauer's daughter made for him, and it totally looked like a tombstone.

So I'm wondering, if some kind of collective subconscious is setting up these stories, is it getting better at it? Or, if humans were already linked in some kind of unseen super-mind, is it gaining new powers from the age of information?

June 3. Procrastination is an emotional problem. The article has some decent advice, but the title and the framing are wrong. Procrastination isn't even a problem -- it's a symptom. The problem is the growing gap between what we think we should be doing, and what we feel like doing. And even this is not an emotional problem, but a social problem.

I see three dimensions of the problem. First, human society has veered off a long way from human nature, probably farther than it's ever been; so there are more tasks than ever that society wants us to do, but it's not in our nature to feel like doing them. Some of this is covered in David Graeber's classic essay on bullshit jobs.

Second, technology has created a lot of hedonic traps, more than we've ever had. A hedonic trap is something that feels good, but leads down a path that eventually feels bad. Here's a smart new article about it, How Limbic Capitalism Preys on Our Addicted Brains.

The third dimension is hard to explain, because we're so deep into it that we have trouble seeing it from the outside. What drew my attention to it was this bit in the limbic capitalism article: "Not everyone was happy with all the talk of addiction.... Libertarians dismissed it as an excuse for lack of discipline."

Libertarians are individualists, everyone knows that. Except I don't think they are. Libertarians are capitalist authoritarians. They define economic freedom, not as the freedom of individuals from economic coercion, but as the freedom of the economically powerful to exploit the economically weak, which in practice means giant concentrations of money exploiting people made weaker by their separation.

But this is not a fringe political ideology. The whole attitude of American culture is to take problems created by society, and put the burden of those problems on each one of us alone.

I haven't identified as libertarian for thirty years, but I'm interested in this subject because I still live like one: my default behavior is to try to figure out rationally what the best thing to do is, and force myself to do it. And as I get older, this strategy becomes more and more exhausting. I think a lot of people are finding the same thing, which is why burnout is now an official medical condition.

Here's my crazy new hypothesis: each person's sense of self, how sharply separated they feel from the rest of the world, is proportional to how much self-discipline they have to use. Or, a culture's belief that the individual self is important, is proportional to how much self-discipline that culture requires.

So the more we can change society to make self-discipline unnecessary, so we can just do what feels good without getting in trouble, the more we'll feel part of a larger whole. This is confirmed by anthropological reports of less individualist cultures, like Richard Sorenson's essay on Preconquest Consciousness.

May 31. Going back to Monday's subject, Jim comments on reincarnation:

I have never gotten past the whole "escape the cycle of rebirth" thing. To me it's the same as the Christian heaven, just with more levels to the game. Particularly, because no one can answer why we're all trying to escape the cycle, or what lies beyond. What if there is no escape? What's the point of rebirth if it just cycles around (which seems more natural than some sort of escape)? What if this earthly life is where it's all at? What if souls come back to earth to be reborn when they get bored in soulworld because no one remembers them and interacts with them anymore? What if gods/goddesses/saints are so busy on the ethereal plane because earthly people still interact with them, that they feel no need to be reborn? The whole thing is fascinating.

I've mentioned this before, but I can't find it in the archives: my favorite crazy idea about reincarnation is that we all start out as miserable gods, then gradually work our way to progressively "lower" and happier animals. That's why there are so many ants and bacteria, because the game has been going on for so long. Maybe after bacteria, we become atoms.

I've also been thinking about a line by Thaddeus Golas, in The Lazy Man's Guide To Enlightenment, that in a metaphysical sense, "There's nobody here but us chickens." No higher power, no cosmic plan, just a very large number of equal beings playing. It can't be that simple, or there wouldn't be so much unnecessary pain, but it's a refreshing idea: a mind-based universe with no purpose.

Then I've been thinking, suppose reality is like fan fiction: it's fundamentally not serious, and within certain constraints, anything goes.

New subject. The women's World Cup starts in a week, and I'll probably be posting highlights. Here's one from a warmup game, a spectacular Erin Cuthbert goal. At around 37 seconds, you can see how the ball beats the keeper by curving hard to the right.

May 29. Long article from The Economist, The Curse of Genius. A few months ago in this post I mentioned that I don't like the word "gifted", and I argued that what IQ tests measure is overrated and often harmful. This article is interesting because it defines "gifted" as more than just intellect: "Kendall describes gifted children of that age as 'driven': 'They never stop and they set themselves incredibly high standards.'" And "They have what is sometimes called 'a rage to master.'"

There's a suggestion here that would be radical, if it were made more explictly: that there is a single underlying cause, that makes kids both smart and driven. Probably these are two different things, which seem related because of selection bias. The kids who have both brainpower and drive are noticed by the giftedness experts, and the kids with only one or the other are not noticed.

I'm interested in this subject because I have brainpower and not drive. I always got top grades in math and science without hardly trying, and teachers were always frustrated that I wasn't interested in whatever they were teaching. Twenty years ago I applied for a proofreading job at Amazon, and aced the test, but I must have failed the interview because I didn't match Amazon's high-achievement culture. My middle school actually had a gifted program, but they didn't put me into it, probably because I worked too slowly.

So now I'm wondering: What exactly is drive and where does it come from? The motivational industry would have us believe it's something anyone can have, but it seems more like something you're born with. My biggest fear about biotech is that they'll discover a drive gene. Of course all the parents will want their kids to have it, and it will unleash a generation so maniacally driven that they'll destroy the planet.

Or is drive a matter of fit? Could you take the high achievers and the lazy people out of one culture, put them in a different culture, and they would switch roles?

Going back to the Curse of Genius article, there's some stuff I can relate to, like chronic anxiety and low social intelligence. But I've never suffered much from boredom, because I'm good at daydreaming. Maybe daydreaming is actually the thing I'm highly driven at.

May 27. Trippy science article (thanks Bill), The Universe as Cosmic Dashboard. The idea is, what seems to us to be an objective physical world, is just a simplified interface to a shared mental world:

Evolution has provided each of us with a dashboard of dials that inform us about the environment we live in. But we don't have a window to look directly at what is out there; all we have are the dials. The error we make is in mistaking the dials for the external environment itself.

Sometimes I see the question: Can quantum weirdness ever appear at the macro level? The respectable answer is no, but I think it happens all the time. Just look at the literature on unreliable eyewitness testimony, and you'll see one example after another of witnesses who report radically different things. This is the same thing that happens in subatomic experiments, where "different observers can give different -- though equally valid -- accounts of the same sequence of events." The only reason it doesn't count as quantum weirdness, is if you're presupposing objective physical reality, in which only one observation can be right.

If you want to get really weird, we've all heard the idea that maybe we see colors differently: what you see as red, I see as blue, but we don't know because we use the same word. But suppose it goes far beyond colors, and you and I live in completely different universes. So when I describe, say, going to the store to buy garbage bags, I'm actually talking about something so alien that you can't even imagine it, but there's some interface that lets us communicate as if we're in the same world. And when this interface reaches its limits, we get disagreements that we can't reconcile.

Related: Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects. I'm not going to try to argue it here, but if you read some books by the smart UFO researchers, like John Keel or Jaques Vallee, they all end up at basically the same conclusion. These sightings are not space aliens, or secret technology, but some kind of projection into our world, from some world we don't understand. It's been happening for all of human history, and it tends to fit the culture of the observer; so ancient people saw gods, and medieval people saw fairies, and in the late 1800's there were a bunch of anomalous hot air balloon sightings, and now we're seeing high-tech drones.

Less related than you think: last Thursday I took LSD, only half a hit because my supply is running low, and walked up the river trail out of town. Maybe it's because I've never taken a big dose, but LSD has never made me hallucinate. Instead, I've discovered that it turns nature into heaven. Probably the three happiest days of my life were when I took LSD and went into semi-wild areas. Earlier this month I spent a bunch of time in museums, and last week I was reminded that any actual flower is more beautiful than any Georgia O'Keeffe painting, and any lichen-patched rockface is better than a Jackson Pollock.

More generally, when I'm on LSD, anything made by humans remains just as boring as when I'm sober. But that evening, still on the LSD plateau, I vaped some weed, and cannabis doesn't care if something is natural or man-made -- it makes everything better. Even though I took smallish doses of both drugs, I got great synergy, and was tripping so hard that I put this song on loop for half an hour and watched videos in my head.

I did get one metaphysical insight from the LSD, but it only makes sense if you accept something like reincarnation. The idea is, some religions believe the purpose of life is to transcend the physical world, or to escape the cycle of life and death. But what if transcendence is a lie, or a trap? What if the actual purpose is to stay here for as long as we can?

May 22. I have no original ideas this week, so I'll just post some links with little or no comment, starting with two from the subreddit. Some good news, Human Composting Is About To Become Legal In Washington State.

And from Aeon magazine, Civilisational collapse has a bright past - but a dark future. The idea is, most historical collapses made life better for most people, but if our system collapses, that won't be the case, because we're so dependent for our survival on the technological infrastructure.

Why America Can't Solve Homelessness. Because homelessness is the result of concentrated wealth, where ridiculous incomes drive ridiculous rents that more and more people can't afford. Related: How San Francisco broke America's heart, and In San Francisco, Tech Money Doesn't Buy Happiness.

The Case for Doing Nothing. I love how this is a trend now, but I wonder if it's all talk, if these articles are being written and read by people who aspire to do nothing, but remain busy.

A short thread on the Eldertrees subreddit, about weed as a tool for therapy. Lately cannabis has been giving me something like nostalgia for the present, where whatever I'm doing, it's like I'm looking back on it from the far future and really appreciating it.

Finally, from last weekend's NWSL action, this is the best team goal I've ever seen. A single Utah Royals possession takes seven seconds, with five different players each taking one touch on the ball.

May 20. I forgot to mention a cool artwork from our trip. Here's a picture of me next to it, Untitled No. 25 by Lee Bontecou. I've also just updated my picture on the about me page, now standing next to a bee painting at the Smithsonian zoo.

Lately there seems to be a lot of buzz about climate change and what we can do about it. Personally I've been eating less beef, which has an enormous carbon footprint. But this puny change will not make any difference, and in general, I'm against the whole idea of tackling global problems through voluntary lifestyle changes by individuals. We need to change the rules of the game: eliminate agricultural subsidies that make ecologically harmful foods affordable, put massive taxes on fossil fuels, redesign cities to be really unfriendly to cars, and generally make the right behaviors not altruistic but practical.

If you take voluntary sacrifice to its logical conclusion, the best thing we can all do to stop climate change is to kill ourselves. But we're not in this world to solve problems by being less alive. I can't think of a way to stop climate change by being more alive (unless it's industrial sabotage). But we can deal with the results of climate change by being more alive: more willing to migrate from coasts, and more willing to try new things in the face of chaos and failure.

May 17. Back in Pullman, and looking forward to my favorite thing: huge blocks of time with nothing I'm supposed to be doing.

On the road I only have my iPad, which is really hard to work with when I'm hand-coding these posts. So now that I'm home, I can post links of stuff from the trip. Surprisingly, my favorite art was not in the Smithsonian but in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: African masks, Art Nouveau sculptures, and Thomas Hart Benton lithographs.

We ate out a lot in DC, and my favorite place was Slash Run, a dive bar with great burgers, where I had this incredible beer, Hermit Thrush Stickney Kriek, and a DJ played lots of classic psych rock I'd never heard, including this brilliant song from 1968, Gary Walker and the Rain - Magazine Woman.

And back to the usual subjects, sometimes I say that prominent doomers are not serious forecasters but performers, and here's a perfect example. Jared Diamond has just declared, "There's a 49 percent chance the world as we know it will end by 2050." He's being mocked for using such a precise number with such a muddy prediction, but if you take the statement apart, he knows exactly what he's doing. He didn't just pull that number out of his ass, but out of the psychology of his audience: 49 percent is the most you can warn people about danger while still being an optimist. "The world as we know it will end" is so vague that it covers the fears of almost everyone. And 2050 is a round-numbered year just close enough for most people to care about.

What Diamond is really saying is, "I want to lead the largest possible public discussion about the collapse of our civilization." There's also an unspoken subtext: that we prefer the world as we know it to the world that will come. But what if we don't? Isn't it strange that the most popular movies are about superheroes, and the goal of the heroes, in every single movie, is to save the world? I think these stories reflect a deep ambivalence, where we want the world to keep going the same way, and we also want to tear it down and try something different. I've said before that the greatest threats to our society are psychological. But it makes more sense the other way around: the greatest threats to our psychological health are in the design of our society.

May 14. Still busy traveling, but this just popped up on Hacker News, a really interesting interactive post about how changes move across networks: Going Critical

May 10. Yesterday we went to the zoo, and I'm wondering if I can do anything new with the old metaphor, that our society is a "human zoo". For the metaphor to be helpful, there has to be an anti-zoo, a possible human condition that corresponds to wild animals in nature. You could argue that there isn't, because 1) we're domesticated, 2) there's a huge variety of nature-based cultures, and 3) some of them are worse than the zoo.

But I'm going to say there is a human anti-zoo: it's any society that fits human nature. Defining "fit" is a hard problem, but I would start with Erich Fromm's argument for the very existence of human nature: that if we were infinitely malleable, there would be no revolutions.

This thoughtful essay, The Myth of Convenience, argues that the project of technological society has changed, from the conquest of nature to the conquest of human nature. This much longer essay, how to do nothing, explains how public spaces are engineered to keep everyone busy. It's full of other ideas about art and technology and perception, but I don't have time to read the whole thing right now - I'm on vacation.

Anyway, now the zoo metaphor is getting stretched, because zoo animals are bored - yesterday we saw an elephant that has worn a path from walking in a figure 8. For modern humans, boredom is a luxury. We're so overwhelmed with demands on our attention that having nothing to do would be an upgrade. It's funny, every cage has a sign: don't tap on the glass. We have yet to give ourselves that protection.

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 - November 2018
December 2018 - January 2019
February 2019
March - April 2019
May 2019 - ?