Ran Prieur

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

- Steven Wright


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August 15. Stray links, all with an anti-progress angle, starting with one from the subreddit, How did millennial comedy get so surreal? "One explanation for all this un-realism is that it's a response to a world that has stopped making sense."

This Johann Hari piece is a good summary of what careful observers have known for years, that depression is caused almost entirely by social and environmental factors, rather than chemicals in the brain. We're still a long way from applying this knowledge, because it's much easier to prescribe antidepressants than to change society. (But in a small low-tech society, it would be the other way around.)

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking is a smart essay about the growing use of technologies that work in ways we don't understand, and how that lack of understanding can come back to bite us.

Two health links from the Return to Now blog: Why it's better to get a tan than wear sunscreen, and Sunglasses increase risk of sunburn and skin cancer.

Finally, A superstar city is born is a fun rant against certain urban development trends: "You can't just throw some affluent millennials into a neighborhood and use the fact that they make a lot of money to say that the city as a whole is improving."

August 12. Going back to the subject of mass shootings, one nice thing about having a blog, is that if I want to know more about a subject, I can just make an overly simple statement, and someone will correct me. So here's a subreddit post about the relative deadliness of different guns, and more generally about the difficulty of stopping mass shootings through gun laws.

And this is a really well-written article, Is it possible to stop a mass shooting before it happens? It's about a woman who infiltrates online hate groups and tips off the FBI to the individuals who are most dangerous. One thing that stands out to me is when she says, "The euphoria among extremists right now is really depressing." Also, that she has to carefully keep her identity secret, or she'll be killed.

This is what social collapse looks like, and I can't think of a realistic solution. My prediction is, mass shootings will keep getting worse, and fade into the background, with a rising threshold of deaths before we even hear about them. Meanwhile, all kinds of regulation and surveillance will also get worse, which will drive despair and hostility inward.

Another angle on social collapse, a long essay about the problem at Yale. Here's a summary on Hacker News. It's largely about the growing trend of rich people pretending to be poor, and argues that they're abdicating responsibility.

But responsibility implies power, and while the rich do have power over the poor, a single rich person has the same power to change the system as a single poor person: zero. Earlier this year I saw a bit about George Soros, at some economic summit, trying to convince people to do something about climate change. What hope does an ordinary billionaire have, if even George Soros has been reduced to shouting into the wind?

A hypothesis: as a society gets more inflexible on the level of how things are done, it gets more unstable on the level of psychology.

August 8. Today, some weird science, starting with The star that's older than the universe. I like this because I'm a Big Bang denier. That 2012 post argues that the universe might not be expanding, and even if it is, it need not have a beginning. But what I believe now is even crazier. I think we humans are at the mental center of our own private cosmos, that what we see in the sky is not filled in until we look at it, and it's filled in according to our own culture and expectations.

That explains Velikovsky's evidence that ancient people saw events in the heavens that we now consider impossible. It explains Charles Fort's evidence, mostly in the book New Lands, about the wild variability of observations in early astronomy. And it solves Fermi's paradox, the puzzling absence of aliens, because any other life smart enough to dream a universe, will be dreaming their own. I think if humans ever settle down as a perpetual species, and not a flash in the pan, we'll look to the sky and see a universe that has always existed and always will.

Speaking of humans getting smarter, Recursive language and modern imagination were acquired simultaneously 70,000 years ago. I'm not going to try to summarize "recursive language". The important thing is that it requires both a certain kind of brain, and a certain kind of culture, which has to be learned in childhood. That means, people must have had the capacity, here and there, but it didn't take off until two children figured it out in the same time and place, built it up by talking to each other, and then taught their own children.

I'm thinking the two people would have been friends, and not a couple, because we're wired to not be sexually attracted to people we spent a lot of time with as kids. Still, what a story! Two kids inventing their own private langauge, that's so much better than other languages that their descendants conquer the world.

I mean, it hasn't worked out so well for the world. But our story isn't finished. There's evidence humans didn't actually see blue until modern times. What other cognitive upgrades are lurking in the realm of unknown unknowns?

And now, the first people to work it out it don't have to know each other. They could be on opposite sides of the world, or even years apart, because we can transmit media dense enough to encode culture, and save it. Related: When you listen to music, you're never alone.

One last crazy idea. Suppose we've reached a stage where there are multiple upgrades available, that are not consistent with each other. I think biotech makes this even more likely: humanity diverging into many species that, as they get better, have less in common.

August 5. A reader sends this blog post, Why Do People Neglect Maintenance? At first I thought "maintenance" was jargon for some arcane psychological concept. It turns out these bloggers are mostly interested in old-fashioned physical maintenance of infrastructure -- which puts this squarely in the category of collapse.

I made a comment at the bottom of the post, which I'll expand on here. One reason they missed, that people neglect maintenance, is that a lot of people don't think the system is worth maintaining. They'd rather take their chances with the world falling apart. This is a big reason, maybe the biggest, that civilizations collapse, and the best book on that subject is Fredy Perlman's Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! Perlman goes through all of history, using beautiful and difficult language to suggest that citizens saw invasions and collapse as openings for exciting change.

This subject also reminds me of Gil Scott-Heron's Whitey on the Moon. The basic idea is, the higher classes are obsessed with grand projects, like the moon landing, which they see as achievements for all mankind. But the lower classes are not buying in, not to colonizing space, and maybe not to society as a whole.

A deeper problem, which is well-covered by the Maintainers blog, is that doing new stuff is cool, and maintaining stuff that other people have done is uncool. They think this is cultural, but I don't think we'll ever again see a culture where it's the other way around.

I think the important issue here is power distribution. Power will never be completely equal, but if the lower classes are allowed to contribute ideas, and have autonomy in how they do their jobs, they'll feel more invested in society, and they'll do better work.

To frame it as a general principle of collapse: as power gets more unequal, the grunts slack, and the system falls apart from the bottom. And the inequality right now is not just between rich and poor, but between machines and humans.

Loosely related, a quick note on the weekend's news. A decision that every American has to make, is whether to do a mass shooting. Right now, less than one American in a million is choosing to do it, and I'm surprised it's so low, because there are way more people than that who are angry and have nothing to live for. I'm not making policy suggestions, only a prediction: before the ratio gets to one in a hundred thousand, we'll see a ban on the AR-15, which is way easier to kill people with than any other legal weapon.

August 2. For the weekend, a fun Reddit thread, Despite what you believe or don't believe, what do you WISH happens when we die? The afterlife is a cool subject, because it's untestable, it's wide open for imagination, and yet it tells us a lot about our own world.

What people wish for in the next life, is what they feel is missing in this life -- but it also has to have continuity with this life. It's a different question than what video game you want to step into.

Some people do put a video game spin on reincarnation: they imagine designing a new character to replay the game. But if I could be reincarnated as anything, the last thing I'd want to be is another human. If I were an insect, I would hatch with full knowledge of how to be that insect. But as a human in this world, after more than 50 years, I still feel like I'm struggling with the tutorial.

I like the idea of reliving my life and doing it right. But I wouldn't want to keep my memories, because every time I took a different path, I'd be thinking about what I missed. Instead, I'd like to just have the understanding to make the right choices. I'm actually pretty happy with the big choices I've made, but my micro-scale choices have been terrible.

It puzzles me that some people wish for total nothingness. If even one moment of your life was better than nonexistence, wouldn't you at least want more of that? I think what they really want, is something they don't know how to ask for, because our culture can't imagine it: awareness without existence.

July 31. Continuing from Monday, if swimming is a metaphor for happiness, which you achieve by focusing on form and not result, then what form leads to happiness? This is a huge subject, with answers everywhere from ancient scriptures to t-shirt slogans. The saying, "Wherever you go, there you are," is basically Ecclesiastes 11:3, "If the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be." It's about not holding tension between the world in front of you and the world in your head.

Matt writes:

Doing mindfulness meditation has made me look at happiness a little differently. Vipassana practices entail focusing on direct raw sensations. When you do this, and get some stability in your concentration, then sensations you might ordinarily consider bad can become either neutral or fascinating.

Once you get away from the stories that spin out of certain emotional experiences, you see that the experiences are just vibrations, pressure, tightness, or whatever. You can clock them rising and fading away. You notice that even though you might be thinking you can't bear the experience, you are bearing it, and that your consciousness does not wholly conform to the wave-forms of the experience.

Lately I've been seeing some arguments against mindfulness. I haven't seen any good ones, but that pdf chapter says to make happiness-seeking behaviors automatic instead of conscious. That goes against a simple interpretation of mindfulness, where everything should be conscious all the time.

Being conscious all the time takes a lot of mental energy, and my new metaphor is reprogramming the autopilot. You can break it into three steps: 1) make your habits conscious, 2) change them, and 3) let them be habits again. Step 1 is the scariest, step 2 takes all the work, and step 3 basically takes care of itself.

I've been reading an e-book that a reader donated, Reality Transurfing by Vadim Zeland. It's very long, and the author sometimes slips into making wild promises, but he's put together a really ambitious metaphysical model, underlying the same kinds of advice you can find in other books. For example, he models bad social movements, and also bad personal habits, as parasitic "pendulums", which try to steal your energy to feed their motion, and they don't care if your energy is positive or negative. He also writes a lot about "potential", which is like karmic energy that wants to stay in balance. So if you want something too much, you're creating excess potential, which is balanced by apparent bad luck that stops you from getting what you want. His surprising advice, to manifest your desires, is to focus on them without feeling that they're important.

One more link on the same kind of subject, The Running Conversation in Your Head, with lots of stuff about how and why we talk to ourselves.

It's quite phenomenal how quickly most kids acquire language. The idea is not that you need language for thinking but that when language comes along, it sure is useful. It changes the way you think, it allows you to operate in different ways because you can use the words as tools.

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.

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
July 2019 - ?