Ran Prieur

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

- Steven Wright


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July 29. Today's subject is how to be happy. How strange is it, that for almost any other goal, pursuing that goal makes you more likely to achieve it, but if you set happiness as a goal, you're less likely to achieve it? You could explain this in terms of evolution: as soon as a species figures out a shortcut to feeling good, which does not optimize survival, they feel good to extinction -- and we're the unhappy survivors. Or if you want to get more woo-woo, the Universal will not let us be persistently happy in a way that does not serve the Universal.

Here's a scholarly pdf chapter, The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotion. From about halfway down, condensed:

The finding that pursuing happiness is associated with negative outcomes may lead us down a pessimistic path. Should we simply give up and resign to being miserable? The success of several happiness-enhancing interventions, however, suggests that pursuing happiness could lead to greater happiness if people do it in the right way.

The authors suggest: 1) setting lower standards for what will make you happy; 2) having more accurate knowledge about what does and does not make you happy; 3) not measuring your emotions against your desired happiness, but accepting your emotions whatever they are; 4) making your happiness-seeking behavior less conscious and more habitual.

And a scientific article, Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness. It summarizes four studies that "consistently reveal the same pattern: reduced feelings of time availability while pursuing happiness."

This totally happens to me when I use cannabis. Because I'm only high about ten percent of the time, and it makes certain things a lot better, I always feel the need to optimize my high time. So I might start playing a song, and then cut it off because I'm not enjoying it enough. Then when I'm sober, even though I'm enjoying the music less, my expectations are lower, so I'll listen to the whole thing.

Anyway, I found that link in this essay, What Swimming Taught Me About Happiness. As a frequent and mediocre swimmer, I totally know this: if you focus on how many seconds it takes to swim a lap, you end up swimming aggressively with sloppy form. The better strategy is to focus purely on having good form, and not care about your speed, and in the long term, you swim faster.

July 26. Starting with some music, I've been listening to a folk singer named Hana Zara. She grew up in Nebraska, moved to Manhattan, then Vermont, and then back to Nebraska. She's a good lyricist with a pretty voice, which is not the same as being a good songwriter, but I've gone through her discography and found three absolute gems.

From her first album in 2010, Little Doll is her catchiest song. I interpret it the same as the book of Ecclesiastes: all human activity is meaningless, but we should enjoy it anyway.

A lot of her songs are rambling, epic, and metaphorical, but You Burnt the Toast is short and down-to-earth, a perfect song about the beauty of small moments.

And from 2017, Hooray Hoorah nails my favorite theme, the yearning for something beyond this world. It could also be about the source that creative people tap into: "jumping right in, and coming up thinner every time."

Related: Lost in the Valley of Death is a long article about a travel blogger who kept pushing his search for transcendence until he died in the mountains of India. There's some interesting stuff about India syndrome, where people go there seeking enlightenment, and "succumb to a heady mix of culture shock, overwhelming unfamiliarity, alluring exoticism, and, in most cases, drugs."

I think the difference between someone like this guy or Chris McCandless, and me, is that I'm not driven. I want the same thing, but I'm too lazy to put myself in that much danger. My goal is to find a living situation so easy that I can get deeper in my own head.

July 23. A reader sends this podcast, a conversation between Charles Eisenstein and Daniel Schmachtenberger: Self-terminating Civilization. This is the kind of thing I liked to write about ten years ago. I rarely write about it now because I rarely find ideas that are new to me. But this week I have no ideas of my own, and some of this stuff is probably new to most of you.

The podcast starts with a thought experiment about a paper clip maximizer destroying the world, and then argues that our society is doing the same thing. Where natural systems are cooperative, and have distributed power, and turn simple things into complex things, civilization has zero-sum competition, centralized power, and turns complex things into simple things.

And some happy links. Portugal's radical drugs policy is working, basically treating drug addiction as a social and medical problem instead of a moral problem. I expect the rest of the world to follow in about fifty years.

Niksen Is the Dutch Lifestyle Concept of Doing Nothing. "Whereas mindfulness is about being present in the moment, niksen is more about carving out time to just be, even letting your mind wander rather than focusing on the details of an action."

Atlanta Turns 7-Acre Vacant Lot into Largest Free Food Forest In the Country. My utopian vision is to have so much free food, that the systems that try to capture our labor have no hold on us. But it's not enough to grow the forest -- humans also have to relearn the habit of eating wild food. This summer, I seem to be the only person in a town of 20,000 who is eating from the serviceberry bushes.

The latest edition of a frequently posted Reddit question, Teachers, what are some positive trends you have noticed in today's youth? The answers always seem too good to be true. I'm wondering if kids are so much nicer now because an atmosphere of total surveillance is forcing them to internalize their meanness, leading to depression and anxiety. But if it's a real and deep change, the metaphor I see is storming the beaches at Normandy, and every generation has a better chance of getting to shore without being psychologically shot to pieces.

July 19. I've had a few comments on medical progress. The basic idea is, there are still a lot of valuable treatments being invented, but they're less universal and more specific. Like, there's never going to be a cure for cancer the way antibiotics were a cure for bacterial infection, but there are powerful new treatments for particular kinds of cancer.

It occurs to me, this is the same long tail that we're seeing in commerce and culture: instead of a few big things for everyone, we have a lot of little things for niche interests. In the 70's, you could name every show on television. Now, even people who work for Netflix can't name every show produced by Netflix.

This has something to do with social complexity, and I'm wondering how much more complex society can get, before it gets simpler.

Related, a long and well-written article about the coming launch of the cosmic crisp apple, with lots of stuff about how the food industry is changing.

"Food has become such a dream world," O'Rourke, the marketing economist, told me recently. He was ruminating on so-called superfoods and on the way food marketing tends to focus on "extrinsic qualities" -- a brand, a logo, a story -- more than the food itself. We want what we eat to save our lives; to reflect our worldliness, the uniqueness of our identities; to fulfill our desire for the new and interesting. One result is that some of the most staple of staples -- things like bread or milk or apples -- are having a hard time competing.

July 16. Bunch o' links. First, Here's What We Know About Mental Fatigue. Mental effort fills your brain with a chemical called adenosine, which makes everything feel harder. But I'm wondering, why does life sometimes feel like an uphill struggle, even when I haven't done anything mentally difficult? Maybe it's because society has gone so far from human nature, that just going through the day doing normal things is mentally difficult.

I haven't watched a full NBA game since the 90's, but I still enjoy reading about it, and this article contains a beautiful sentence: "Lonzo-to-Zion lobs will make for nightly highlight reels."

An article about a 1919 Army Truck Convoy Across the U.S. Only 100 years ago, the roads were so primitive that the trip took two months, and "the convoy was involved in 230 accidents and damaged 88 bridges." So I'm wondering, how different will transportation be in another 100 years? My best guess is that the roads will be crumbling, and long-distance travel will be done by air or very long walks.

The Murakami Effect, a long and smart essay about the Japanese author, and how he cynically reverse-engineered his fiction for translation into the American literary genre, while more interesting Japanese authors remain almost unknown in the west. This seems to be a common thread across all kinds of creative work: the choice to be successful by giving people what they already feel comfortable with, or to follow your own peculiar vision and remain obscure.

Is Medicine Overrated? In the old days, medical interventions did more harm than good. That changed with several "magic bullets": anesthesia, clean surgery, antibiotics, and vaccinations. Since then, we've been expecting more medical miracles, and mostly getting more expensive stuff of dubious value. I want to plug a little-known book called The Health of Nations by Leonard Sagan, which argues that modern increases in health and longevity are mostly because of psychosocial factors.

Is Consciousness Fractal? It's mostly about fractals in art and nature, and why we like them. I think the word "consciousness" can be canceled out of the equation, and we can just say that reality is fractal, and the human-made world has fallen away from that, creating too much disorder and also too much control, and we're trying to get back into balance.

July 12. Two quick happy links for the weekend. A retired teacher found some seahorses off Long Beach. Then he built a secret world for them:

If you get Hanson talking about his seahorses, he'll tell you exactly how many times he's seen them (997), who is dating whom, and describe their personalities with intimate familiarity. Bathsheba is stoic, Daphne a runner. Deep Blue is chill.

And The 50 Best New Board Games, where new means the last five or ten years. I've only played two on the list. Root has highly asymmetrical design (meaning the different factions play differently) and great visual design, but I just didn't think the gameplay was fun. And Spirit Island is my favorite board game. It's both asymmetrical and cooperative, and so complex that you really have to focus. You play nature spirits trying to stop an island from being colonized.

July 10. Continuing from Monday, I want to say more about solipsism and panpsychism. Obviously I'm not a solipsist, or there would be no point in writing for an audience. But I love the Boltzmann brain conjecture. The specific idea is about the physics of entropy, but the general idea is that it's easier to create a brain that dreams a universe, than to create a universe.

Imagine for a minute that you alone are dreaming all of this. You might ask, then why am I not all-powerful? The answer is, that would get boring, especially if you're immortal. So you arranged a bunch of challenges and constraints, and made yourself forget.

But then, who manages all the action behind the scenes? And what's in it for them? It seems like the best way to set it up, is just to split the one mind into many minds, with their own perspectives and motives.

Coming at it from the other side, panpsychism seems silly because we only know what it's like to be a human - and not just any human, but a hyper-individualized modern human. We can't even ask what it's like to be a rock, because our word "be" carries too much baggage. Instead of saying rocks have consciousness, I like to say that consciousness has rocks. Something whose nature is not changed by being broken in two, would not have anything like a self, but it could be part of some kind of mind-matter field.

There's a popular idea that our beliefs and/or desires create reality. But it can't be that simple, because people on drugs, who completely believe they can fly, cannot fly, even when no one is looking. It must be because matter and gravity are looking. I wonder if people who claim to be creating their own reality, are just playing tricks with causality and identity, and what they've really done is aligned their beliefs and desires with what's going to happen anyway.

July 8. Recently posted on the subreddit: Panpsychism is crazy, but it's also most probably true. Well, crazy is relative. The article begins, "Common sense tells us that only living things have an inner life. Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences..." But that's not common sense - it's a particular cultural filter. Nature-based cultures are animist, seeing everything as a person. Descartes went almost to the opposite extreme, seeing everything except humans and God as mindless. That wasn't so long ago, and now we're going through a messy process of adding stuff back.

I think the only two stable positions are panpsychism and solipsism. If you open the door to even other humans having perspectives, there's no good place to draw a line, except maybe between things that are and are not self-organizing.

Two loosely related links, Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants. And When researchers listen to people who hear voices. It's mainly about the difference between people who are tormented by voices in their heads, and people who find the voices helpful.

Two links in another direction, Tree planting 'has mind-blowing potential' to tackle climate crisis, with "1.7bn hectares of treeless land on which 1.2tn native tree saplings would naturally grow."

And a John Michael Greer post, A Conversation with Nature. It's about how zebra mussels have cleaned up Lake Erie, despite human authorities trying hard to exterminate them.

Read the literature on invasive species, and you'll find scientific objectivity discarded in favor of language usually found in wartime propaganda: peaceful communities menaced by aggressive invaders. Why?

Greer argues that it's because we see nature as static and not resilient. I think it's also ego. Humans want all ecological influence to come from human agency.

July 4. Leigh Ann and I are visiting her family for the holiday, in Florida. Compared to the northwest, the human-made world is more nightmarish and the natural world is more dense and epic. There's a thunderstorm almost every day, and a pond of frogs sounds more beautiful than almost any human music.

I only have my iPad, so posting is tricky, but here's some stuff I pre-wrote. From reddit, a long post with comments, A Historical Perspective on Collapse.

In summary: human civilization is going to collapse, probably soon. It may actually be happening right now. Barring WWIII or an asteroid hitting the earth, it will not be quick. It will be slow, it will be uneven, and it will likely take a century or more before we hit the bottom. The collapse will not be the end.

This article is pure black comedy: How We Realized Putting Radium in Everything Was Not the Answer. I wonder what radium-like thing we're doing now.

Power Causes Brain Damage. The article is missing a good definition of power. What it's talking about, I would call power-over, a social role where other people are punished for not doing what you tell them to do, and for telling you what you don't want to hear. I think the only robust solution is a culture where nobody will put up with that shit.

It is play, and not work, that gives life meaning. I like this definition of work: "whenever we do something only for the sake of something else." And the conclusion: "Children understand that the really important things in life are the things that are worth doing for their own sake."

There's a famous motivational quote: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." I finally figured out the trick to applying it. The frame of time to do what makes you come alive, is not in your grand plans for your whole life, but in a large number of small moments.

July 1. So I've been watching the women's World Cup, and this year they're using VAR for the first time. It stands for video assistant referee, and almost everyone hates it. In theory it makes sure the calls on the field are right, but in practice, it breaks the flow of the game, and it allows results to be influenced by things so insignificant that only the machine can see them.

Now goals can be won by drawing the slightest brush of a cleat in the box, or lost by being half an inch offside. The most dramatic defensive play in the game, the saved penalty kick, is now even more rare because the VAR can see the goalkeeper taking her foot off the line a tenth of a second early.

My position is, the rules must serve the game, not the other way around; and the purpose of the game is to be fun for players and audiences. That fun is being lost, because rules that were designed for soft human enforcement are being interpreted by hard machines.

Of course this goes way beyond sports, into our high-tech surveillance society. With machines always watching us, we have to spend a lot of mental energy conforming to rules that were not intended for such strict enforcement, everything from red light cameras to speech codes.

Another rule change in world football, is what the refs look at when there's a handball in the box. They used to consider the player's intention, but now they've been instructed to ignore intention, and only rule on whether one physical object has impacted another. It's like we worship machines so much that we are turning ourselves into machines, devaluing any skill that humans have and machines don't.

Imagine trying to manage a business, or get along with your friends, without ever considering intention. But that seems to be where we're headed. The Supreme Court used to consider the intentions of the authors of laws, but at some point they started to look only at the text. At about the same time, the same thing happened in literary criticism.

I think these trends are part of a larger social trend of disconnection, atomization, stripping away of context. I'm not sure what's behind that trend, but it has to be cyclical, and I'm looking forward to the counter-trend, adding context back.

June 29. Quick note on music. A couple weeks ago I said that Miles Davis's Get Up With It was my new favorite jazz album. Then I started looking into other stuff he did around the same time, and now I'm obsessed with his 1972 album On The Corner. When it came out, the jazz establishment hated it. And if you want to split hairs, you could argue that it's not jazz but psychedelic funk. But to my ear, it's whole evolutionary level beyond Davis's supposed masterpiece, Bitches Brew. The funny thing is, critics at the time thought it was empty of content. But when you understand it, you can hear so many things going on, that it's hard to not be bored by other music.

June 26. Today, some negative links. The Boomers Ruined Everything. The article goes through it issue by issue explaining how they ruined everything, but I'm wondering, why? It's not like one generation, in one country, happened to be born bad people. I think this is a simple case of power corrupting. The most wealthy and powerful generation, in the most wealthy and powerful country, influenced the law to favor the powerful over the weak. Of course they did.

5G Networks Could Throw Weather Forecasting Into Chaos, because 5G uses a frequency that's basically the same as water vapor. Now we won't be able to see hurricanes through the fog of our tweets and memes. More generally, technology continues to turn humanity's attention in the wrong directions.

Long article from the Guardian, How the news took over reality. I would frame this in terms of pseudo-democracy. Everyone wants to make the world better, but the way the news is presented to us, it focuses our attention on giant issues where we have no influence, and it focuses our actions into high-tech shouting into the wind. I'm doing that right now, unless I can convince someone to stop following the news and instead try to make their own tiny world better.

A week ago this video was submitted to the subreddit, What are societies of control? It's dry and brainy, I just skipped through it, but I did notice the conclusion, a quote from Gilles Deleuze, that we need to "look for new weapons." Years ago when I started this blog, my attitude was that society is bad, and we need to go out and fight it. Now I see that strategy as a luxury for people who have actual power, or think they do. Now my attitude is, I'm going to make my own life as good as I can, and if the system doesn't like it, it can come and try to stop me; and I can keep looking, not for new weapons, but for new openings.

June 24. Snake Venom Use as a Substitute for Opioids. Getting intentionally bitten by a snake is crude, but I'm wondering how much room there is to make drugs that work the opposite of existing recreational drugs: they make you feel bad for a short time, and then good for a long time.

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 - June 2019