Ran Prieur

"The unspeakable is the true domain of being."

- Terence McKenna


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May 27. Continuing from Monday, Rob sends this reddit comment by Gizortnik on male bonding, with a great metaphor of testing boundaries by throwing rubber balls, versus throwing bricks to actually hurt people.

It reminds me of a bit from yesterday's link on healthy work teams, with this metaphor from gaming:

In RPGs, when I have my core team, I really like trying to level up all my characters evenly. If I gain a new character at a lower level, but she has a skillset or affinity that complements the rest of my team, I'll invest in leveling her up a bit so she can move around the map with a little less worry about enemy attacks. And if I have a character that's at a super high level to begin with, I avoid putting them into combat with weaker enemies, because they'll just hog experience points that will benefit my low- and mid-level fighters more.

Of course you also have to not get your characters killed. So social leveling means giving people challenges hard enough to make them stronger, but not so hard that they're traumatized. One more metaphor: when you're working out, you want all your muscles to be about equally strong; and you want to push them enough to make them stronger, but not enough to damage them.

Taking a step back, even if we perfectly understand the skills that each individual needs for a social organism to be healthy, we're still talking about really hard skills. I mean, I've aced college-level math classes, I've written a novel, I've fixed up a house, I'm more than 50 years old, and I still have no clear sense of where the line is between a social rubber ball and a social brick. In some future utopia, either kids are going to need years of formal training in this stuff, or the culture needs to still run smoothly if our skills are second-rate.

May 25. Matt comments on the last post:

People are more playful when status matters less and meaner when it matters more.

My friend recently wrote a play about male body issues and, after a reading of it, the men got into a discussion about how when guys are one-on-one, we can be vulnerable. When guys are in a group -- at least, American guys my age -- there's an invisible social pressure to assert dominance, which is usually done through being verbally mean. Ragging on each other. In the best guy groups, the meanness is matched with playfulness. You might say something superficially mean, but there's affection underneath. Once you leave your group, though, or the dynamic changes because of a new member or woman, there's less guarantee of playfulness.

I think the playfulness comes from trust, but there's also a way in which trust is built through tests of superficial meanness. If the superficial meanness gets answered with real meanness, then there's no trust and just more meanness. But if the superficial meanness gets answered with more superficial meanness -- that is, if you signal that you can handle rough play -- then you get more rough play. And the playfulness leads, sometimes, to real moments of vulnerability with each other.

Loosely related, a blog post about psychological health in the software industry, Habits of High-Functioning Teams.

May 23. Thinking more about yesterday's subject: the fictional citizens of Letterkenny achieve social utopia, not through a simple rule that you can say anything, but through a really difficult skill. The best I can explain it is that they remain playful at all times. It takes a lot of social agility to keep playfulness from veering into meanness. People need to know each other and trust each other at a level that gets more difficult as a community gets larger and has more people entering and leaving.

I wonder if this is part of how social media is causing mass anxiety. The internet is too thin a connection to discern playfulness from meanness, so we're all afraid to be playful and afraid of other people being mean.

May 22. This week, Leigh Ann and I have been watching two TV shows on Hulu that are near opposites. Little Fires Everywhere is a social horror show. Everyone is hypervigilant and super-nice, because the social environment is so delicate that the slightest mistake could lead to disaster. I hate it, but I'm watching it anyway because it's really well done.

At the other extreme, Letterkenny is a rapid-fire deadpan comedy about smart hicks in Canada. Everyone says exactly what they're thinking all the time, conflicts rise and fall like waves in the ocean, and at the end of the day everyone is friendly.

Now, which of those worlds would you rather step into? And why do we find ourselves in the other one?

I blame social inequality, which under capitalism is pretty much the same as wealth inequality. It's been true for all of history that less powerful people have to be really careful what they say around more powerful people. And now, under left-wing political correctness, the more powerful also have to be careful before the less powerful. Walking on eggshells has been universalized -- which is fair, but a nightmare.

How do we get out of it? Here's how it might happen. First, we need some kind of really strong safety net, most likely a universal basic income. Then, no matter how much you say the wrong thing, the maximum penalty is that you're still guaranteed dignified survival. Then, among the fallen, subcultures will rise, so clearly fun and careless that they spread to the culture at large.

May 20. Bunch o' links about head-hacking. Stanford researchers devise treatment that relieved depression in 90% of participants in small study. The coming larger study will not achieve 90%, but the treatment is strong magnetic pulses through your skull.

What Happens to Your Body When You Take Naps Every Single Day? Once you get in a routine, it's really good for you.

From the Showerthoughts subreddit, As children, spinning in circles to feel dizzy was our first attempt to get high and alter our minds.

Moving to actual drugs, a well-written trip report, My experience with 15G of mushrooms, which is triple the "heroic dose".

A scientific paper, Survey of entity encounters on DMT. The conclusion:

N,N-dimethyltryptamine-occasioned entity encounter experiences have many similarities to non-drug entity encounter experiences such as those described in religious, alien abduction, and near-death contexts. Aspects of the experience and its interpretation produced profound and enduring ontological changes in worldview.

The comment thread on that article in the Psychonaut subreddit, with some interesting stuff about possession by spirits.

And a nice thread about tripping with pets. The animals are not tripping, although I do remember a post by a guy whose dog accidentally ate some LSD, and seemed to become permanently smarter.

May 18. Posted to the subreddit, Japan's suicide rate plummets during coronavirus. In other places, the numbers are not in for actual suicides, but calls to suicide hotlines are up in Australia.

I will not be surprised to see a global decline in suicide, because pain is more bearable if you can put your finger on what's causing it. I don't want to say that Coronavirus is causing "real" problems, but that it's causing obvious problems, where normally the problems in prosperous societies are so subtle that people don't know why they're unhappy or what could ever make it stop.

NY Times article from last week, How Pandemics End. It goes through the history of pandemics, and distinguishes between a medical end, and a social end: "People may grow so tired of the restrictions that they declare the pandemic over, even as the virus continues to smolder in the population and before a vaccine or effective treatment is found."

I agree with letting it smolder. Even though I love life under quarantine, I know that a lot of people hate it, and they need to get back to a somewhat normal life. Quality of life is more important than quantity. Also, the more of us get the virus and survive, the better position we're in, if years go by and we still don't have a good vaccine.

Here's an idea for a sci-fi novel. Imagine a pandemic, where not only can you get it twice, but every time you get it, it's worse!

May 15. I'm still on semi-vacation from blogging. Here's a great quote I just got over email:

We have homo sapiens, the people who know, which somehow became homo sapiens sapiens, the people who know they know. Maybe someday we'll reach homo sapiens sans sapiens, the people who know they don't know.

And some music. This week I've become obsessed with two songs from the 2019 album Signal by Automatic, a Los Angeles band with no guitars, only drums, bass, and keyboard. The songs are Humanoid and Strange Conversations.

May 13. A couple weeks ago I recorded an interview for the Hermitix podcast. The interview is now up here, and also on YouTube. Thanks James!

May 11. Catching up on Coronavirus, of all the experts they interview on CNN, Laurie Garrett is the most interesting. She mentioned that most of the people who die from Coronavirus have high blood pressure, and that it's turning out to be more of a cardiovascular disease than a respiratory disease. It's also really weird as viruses go, with new vectors of transmission popping up, and an incubation period anywhere from two days to two weeks.

More weirdness: Last month I saw an interview with a nurse at the Seattle-area rest home where it hit early, and she said that not one patient had a runny nose, but that all of them were red around the eyes, like red eye shadow. That's the only time I've heard mention of that symptom.

Garrett says the best case scenario is three years, and that's if we get a slam-dunk vaccine and vaccinate everyone in the world. My comment: as potential vaccines take longer, are more expensive or fiddly, and have more bad effects, we come closer to the best move being global herd immunity, where most of the world gets it, and we just slow it down enough so that hospitals don't get overwhelmed.

Here's a big Reddit thread, What positive effects has the quarantine had for you? Also, Small Farms in N.Y. Are Experiencing a Surprising Boom.

May 8. I want to get gradually back into blogging, but I want to be more careful about what kind of idea-space I'm creating, and what kind of energy I'm feeding. On the one hand, I always have stuff to say that I think will be helpful, but on the other hand, I don't want anyone to care what I think, if that makes sense.

Today, just a couple links. Cross-posted to the subreddit from the Slate Star Codex subreddit: What changes significantly worsened your quality of life? The most interesting answers are stuff that we normally think will improve quality of life, like moving to a new place, going to college, meditation, fasting, working out, and not drinking.

You're a Completely Different Person at 14 and 77, the Longest-Running Personality Study Ever Has Found. Why is it that every single system for classifying personality, insists that your profile is fixed for life? Because that gives the system more power, and if you buy into that, you lose your power to change yourself.

May 5. Just letting everyone know I'm okay, actually really enjoying the time away. I don't know if quarantine is making the internet more toxic, or if it's just me, but going online has increasingly been something I dread, not something I look forward to. What if, in a few years, everyone feels that way? Is the internet a fad?

Here's a nice long reddit comment about working with nature in gardening, including a rant about how weeds are just trying to heal dead soil. "Struggling with plants? Often the correct solution is to remove the human."

April 23. I've decided to take a break from blogging. I have no plan for when I'll come back, but my guess is two to three weeks.

April 22. Continuing on trippy stuff, two readers have sent me this Stephen Wolfram article, Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics. The basic idea is that you can get an extremely complex system, by applying a simple rule recursively, and he's trying to find the rule that will create our universe.

The kind of rules he's looking at, are rules for transforming a system of relations. This fits with an idea that's strange to western metaphysics, but common outside it: that relations are more fundamental than things.

At the end of the article, after a lot of heavy technical stuff, he concludes:

So what does all this mean for our original goal - of finding a rule to describe our universe? Basically it's saying that any (computation universal) rule will do - if we're prepared to craft the appropriate description language. But the point is that we've basically already defined at least some elements of our description language: they are the kinds of things our senses detect, our measuring devices measure, and our existing physics describes.

This reminds me of Donald Hoffman's work, summarized in this article from last year, The Case Against Reality. The basic idea is that our senses have not evolved to see reality as it is, but to see increasingly useful representations, like how our computer shows us desktop icons, instead of silicon chip schematics. Even physics and astronomy are not seeing reality, only squinting at pixels. From Hoffman's conclusion:

We suppose that the long sweep of spacetime, with its countless stars and planets, is the preexisting stage for an accidental drama in which we are bit players. We think it's faintly mad to suppose otherwise. But we're mistaken. We are the authors of space and time; their myriad contents are our impressive stagecraft.

And from Wolfram's conclusion:

While we view our universe - and reality - through our particular type of description language, there are endless other possible description languages which can lead to descriptions of reality that will seem coherent within themselves, but which will seem to us to correspond to utterly incoherent and meaningless aspects of our universe.

I've always assumed that any entity that exists in our universe must at least "experience the same physics as us". But now I realize that this isn't true. There's actually an almost infinite diversity of different ways to describe and experience our universe, or in effect an almost infinite diversity of different "planes of existence" for entities in the universe.

April 21. A few quick notes on drugs. To be fair to my sober self, I write every blog post sober (although I do use some ideas I get while high), and my fiction would be terrible if I didn't edit while sober. Cannabis gives me mind-blowing stuff, but it also gives me bad stuff that I don't know is bad. Sober me is like Don Draper, sitting in his office, accepting or rejecting stuff from the creative department downstairs.

Matt comments: "I've had spiritual teachers warn me away from psychedelics, and cannabis, on the idea that they scramble your aura or something. But I can't help but feel that most of the aversion to them in spiritual circles is a remnant of Old-World morality."

I agree. I've put a lot of time into meditation, and it has yet to give me even a hint of spiritual, philosophical, creative, or euphoric value. The value is entirely practical: I can more quickly notice the onset of bad mental states, and get out of them, or through them. It's completely different from the value I get out of drugs, although it is a big help in managing drug trips.

April 20. Today is the month 4/20, and also the date 4/20, so I want to write about weed. It's funny, when I'm sober, I'm lazy -- I'm always trying to find shortcuts to minimize work, so I can lie on the couch and do nothing. But when I'm high, I'm a total workaholic: I'm so much better at certain things -- creative writing, deep introspection, appreciating nature -- that I want to use every second to do one of those things, before my mind becomes disenchanted.

But if I do it too much, it just makes me numb. So I'm always looking for a hack: the right timing, the right activities, the right mindset, where I can go to the well more often. The latest thing I'm trying is to avoid euphoria. When I start to feel, "Whoa, this is so awesome," I pull back from that feeling, and refocus on the work.

There's a famous Alan Watts line, "When you get the message, hang up the phone." He wrote it in the context of psychedelic drugs, immediately after this line: "Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful." In other words, all of drugs have only one good message, and once you get that message, you should never do drugs again.

But every time I do psychedelics, including cannabis, I get a new message -- as long as I don't do them too often. I find another piece of advice more useful: "Don't chase the pink elephant." The pink elephant could be weirdness, or euphoria, or the tease of final truth, but whatever it is, it leads you farther and farther into drug-land, and no good will come of chasing it.

Instead, when you get something that you can apply to sober-land, come back and apply it. And then, from that place of balance, go out again.

April 18. Back in the 90's, I subscribed to two great magazines, Steamshovel Press and Flatland, that had smart articles by people who investigated anomalies with no axe to grind. To this day, I believe that RFK was killed by his bodyguards, that there were two explosions in Oklahoma City, that TWA flight 800 was hit by a stray missile, and that 9/11 was so weird, that the deeper you get into details, the less sense it makes to ask what really happened.

But some time after 9/11, conspiracy theory became narrativized: the community of people who investigate anomalies in news and recent history, all fell under the spell of a master story, which is now taken for granted without argument. This story is, that whatever happens 1) was planned that way 2) by bad people 3) to make the world worse.

Find me someone who thinks that Coronavirus is no deadlier than the flu, but that 1) it was an honest mistake 2) by well-meaning people, and 3) the lockdown will make the world better.

I'm sure it will. I mean, there will also be some bad effects, never mind the actual deaths. I fear a long-term trend of germophobia, which is basically biophobia.

But here's a paranoid article that still sees psychological benefits: Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting. The idea is, capitalism will try to make us forget "The Great Pause... a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see ourselves and our country in the plainest of views."

This Reddit thread has some examples of what we're seeing: What might be the biggest positive impact the current situation has on humanity?

On the Weird Collapse subreddit, the latest Quarantine open thread has some good stuff on the psychology of quarantine, including this: "Essentially, the first week of lockdown was spent cranking up all my unhealthy coping mechanisms to 11, and then they just sort of magically all stopped being fun." That reminds me of a William Blake line: "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."

Also, Spain just passed a permanent basic income.

And Amid coronavirus shutdown, Yosemite wildlife roams free.

April 16. Since quarantine started, I've been getting more emails, more people seem to care what I think, but at the same time, I've felt less intelligent, like my thoughts are all sticky and clunky. But I want to grind through another post, with a little more about that McGilchrist-Vervaeke video.

Around the five minute mark, Vervaeke describes four kinds of knowing: propositional, procedural, perspectival, and participatory. Propositional is what philosophers and computers do. It's all about what statements are true and false. Procedural is knowing how to do something, like ride a bicycle. (The examples all seem to be stuff you do with your body, so I wonder how he would categorize mental procedural skills.) Perspectival knowing is tricky, but his examples are about knowing "what it's like to be" in certain states of consciousness, plus the ability to shift perspective. And participatory is "attunement, fundamental connectedness, being at home... the sense you lose when you're in another culture."

Yeah, I don't have that one at all. This whole human-made world feels like an alien culture to me, always has, and that's a common problem of our times. When people seek "meaning", what they're really seeking is participatory knowing -- and because our culture is front-loaded with propositional knowing, people seek meaning and belonging through beliefs. That's why we have flat-earthers and crazy political ideologies.

Framing it as a mechanism of collapse: when a society 1) fails to give its members fundamental connectedness, and 2) is fixated on propositional beliefs, the inevitable result is that people seek connectedness through beliefs; and when they're looking at a belief, the first thing they're looking at is how it satisfies their need for connectedness, rather than how well it fits reality.

This is an even bigger problem if some people have too much power, or not enough power, because in both cases, they suffer no consequences for beliefs that don't fit reality. And right now, we have a lot of people with either too much power or not enough, so there's a lot of room for beliefs to go wrong. And when public policy is driven more by belonging-based propositions, than by doing-based and being-based knowing, there's trouble.

April 14. Picking up from last week, I'm still thinking about how there are two different modes of brain-world interface. In one, you start by telling a compelling story, and then you look at the world for evidence that fits it. (Or, you start with a story that you don't like, and pick out evidence that doesn't fit it.) In the other mode, you don't care which side of the story a piece of data is on -- you're not fighting an intellectual battle, but exploring, actually trying figure shit out.

Dougald sends this video, a conversation between Iain McGilchrist and John Vervaeke. McGilchrist is big into brain hemispheres. He would say that the first mode of thinking is the left brain, which focuses narrowly within models that it does not question, like a bird picking out seeds. And the second mode is the right brain, which looks broadly and notices whatever's there.

I've also been watching "100 Humans" on Netflix. They did an experiment where people had to work together in a creative task, and the groups that were competing for money did worse than the groups that were not rewarded. Then motivational expert Dan Pink explained how external reward narrows our focus (McGilcrhist would say it activates our left brain) and makes us worse at creative tasks.

So I'm thinking about the unconditional basic income, which Coronavirus has made more likely, and how it would change our culture. As our daily activities are less connected to money, we should get more creative, and more right-brained. But you could also argue that our habit of left-brain fixation will only find a new focus, no longer money, but crazy beliefs, which will veer every which way from reality, and destabilize society.

March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)

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 - August 2019
September - November 2019
December 2019 - January 2020
February - March 2020
April 2020 - ?