Ran Prieur

"Das Chaos sei willkommen, denn die Ordnung hat versagt."

- Karl Kraus


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June 10. I can't wait until humans get politics figured out so I can stop writing about it. Today, some head-stretching links on other subjects.

From the "advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature" department, Slime mould simulates Tokyo rail network.

This Is What Happens When You Take 550 Doses of LSD At Once. The article covers several cases of accidental LSD overdose, and this is the one from the title:

When the drug finally wore off another 10 hours later, CB felt normal, and her chronic pain had completely disappeared. For seven years she had been taking morphine every day to treat symptoms of Lyme disease. After her LSD overdose, not only had her pain evaporated, she felt no withdrawal symptoms from the opioids she had been taking.

Going deeper into mind-body stuff, a good one from the subreddit, What we can learn from untranslatable illnesses. These are illnesses with physical symptoms, that only appear in certain cultures. When people say "it's all in your head," they seem to think that should make it easier. Really, mind-based illness is on a whole higher level of difficulty.

I don't have a link, but I heard about an illness that only appears in one Latin American culture. The symptom is that you have really bad luck, and the only cure is to go to a shaman.

What is emergence, and why should we care about it? This is a dense critique of reductionism, the idea that no matter how complex something is, it can always be understood by breaking it down into little parts. This is not science but faith: when in practice reductionists can't explain wholes in terms of parts, they insist that they just need better number-crunching.

Emergentism is the idea that the failure of reductionism is not merely practical, but fundamental:

that parts and wholes have equal ontological priority, with the wholes constraining the parts just as much as the parts constrain the wholes... that the universe is in some sense open to novel phenomena that cannot be perfectly anticipated using any scientific theory, but, once present, can still be studied using scientific methods. In other words, emergentism suggests that even our best quantitative theories cannot always tell us when qualitative changes will occur.

The same subject from another angle: Why Tacit Knowledge is More Important Than Deliberate Practice. The idea is, to get good at something, you have to learn skills that can't be described in words. More good stuff in the Hacker News comment thread.

June 8. This is really obvious: the police are used against lower-class crimes, and not upper-class crimes. When Facebook breaks a law, cops are not going to march into Mark Zuckerberg's office and tase him if he resists. I mean, if he does something really bad, the police will show their presence, but they don't need to, because he knows if he runs away, they'll finally start treating him the way they treat the lower class by default.

At the same time, big government can stand up to big money. So when someone says they're anti-government and pro-police, what they mean is they support force going down the pyramid, but not up it.

For all of history, force has gone down the pyramid while wealth has gone up it. America didn't change that, we just had enough prosperity to buy off the middle class. As the age of economic growth ends, the middle class cannot be bought off, and they're noticing that their interests align with the lower class.

I'm actually proud of how well America is handling this. We're working through a lot of shit in a short time with minimal casualties, and seriously talking about real reforms.

Four links on how policing could be done differently. First, Are Cops Constitutional?

Professional police were unknown to the United States in 1789, and first appeared in America almost a half-century after the Constitution's ratification. The Framers contemplated law enforcement as the duty of mostly private citizens, along with a few constables and sheriffs who could be called upon when necessary. This article marshals extensive historical and legal evidence to show that modern policing is in many ways inconsistent with the original intent of America's founding documents.

From the NY Times, Cities ask if it's time to defund police and reimagine public safety. Specifically, "many social welfare tasks that currently fall to armed police officers - responding to drug overdoses, and working with people who have a mental illness or are homeless - would be better carried out by nurses or social workers." That means fewer jobs for people trained in using force, and more jobs for people trained in engaging citizens without force.

Rolling Stone has just reposted this 2014 piece, Six Ideas for a Cop-Free World.

And What America can learn from Nordic police. Reading this makes me realize how really authoritarian America is. Our baseline culture takes for granted that torture works, that sentences should be long and prisons should be dreadful, that being nice to people is a bottomless sink, and humans will only serve the larger good under threat of punishment. Nordic countries are assuming the opposite, and it's working better for them.

June 5. In coverage of civic unrest, "violence" is a propaganda word, by which I mean, it's both morally loaded and sloppily defined. In practice, the word violence makes crimes against property seem just as bad as crimes against people.

Property is just a big game we're all playing, and it hasn't been fun for a long time, if it ever was.

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine the police all got together, and announced, "We're tired of putting our asses on the line protecting stuff. From now on, we're only enforcing laws that protect people." That's what good cops actually do when things get really bad.

The first thing that would happen is, any concentration of valuable stuff near poor people would be looted. Then the big companies would hire mercenaries to protect their warehouses. But if we break in, they can't shoot us, because laws protecting people are still being upheld. So if enough people gather to win a shoving match, they can take possession of anything.

At the same time, any business that's on good terms with most of the nearby people will be protected. More generally, any system of human activity that can justify itself locally will be preserved, while any system that relies on far-flung abstractions will be dismantled, and the whole economy will be stripped down to activities that make sense on a human scale.

Okay, but where does your friendly mini-mart get its merchandise? Who's going to make stuff if they can't make money from selling it? The answer is, anyone who enjoys making stuff. The manufacturing economy would be stripped down to home workshops and the happiest factories. I don't think any of them are making microprocessors, so high tech would be stripped down to stuff that's easy to scavenge and tinker with.

What about food? Farmers love their work, otherwise they would quit, because it's a hard job that pays basically nothing. But industrial farming would slowly fall apart without industrial manufacturing, and distributing food would be even harder. So we would need a lot of volunteer work, and really skillful organization, to stop a lot of us from dying.

But in trying to get through this, we would be constantly asking two questions of every task: 1) Is this really necessary for human well-being? 2) Am I enjoying it? Notice how rarely, under the present system, we hold our actions to those standards. Instead, the question we're always asking is: if I say no to this bullshit, how much will my life be ruined?

This thought experiment is an extreme simplification of a process that's going to actually happen over a really long time. My point is, the more we respect quality of life over claims of ownership, the more meaningful and enjoyable our lives are, if only we can overcome challenges that are mainly logistical.

June 3. Timely Terence McKenna quote, from this video:

We can embrace chaos, and see that chaos is the environment in which we all thrive. That's how I've done it for years. You think I could have gotten away with this in the Soviet Union? I don't think so. I require a society on the brink of social breakdown to be able to do my work, and I think a society on the brink of social breakdown is the healthiest situation for individuals. I don't know how many of you have ever had the privilege of being in a society in a pre-revolutionary situation, but the cafes stay open all night and there's music in the streets and you can breathe it, you can feel it, and you know what is happening. The dominator is being pushed.

It never succeeds, it never is able to claim itself. But on the other hand history is young. We may have a crack at this. A global society is coming into being, a global society made out of information that was not intended to be ours, but which is ours, through the mistaken invention and distribution of small computers, the printing press, all of this stuff. Information is power, and information has been spilled by the clumsy handling of the cybernetic revolution by the dominator culture, so that it is everywhere. Never has the situation been more fluid.

June 2. My latest take on Trump, standing on the shoulders of this excellent reddit comment from early 2016.

The nice thing about Trump is, he's not an ideologue -- he's a negotiator. He doesn't really believe in anything except his own power, so he found a movement he could get in front of, and he's very good at knowing what they want.

As their negotiator, he always starts with an offer as extreme as he can get away with, so that the eventual compromise will be more in his favor. [update june 3] For example, CNN thinks that when he had a street aggressively cleared of peaceful protesters so he could walk to a church, that was an act of clumsiness, when really he was carefully testing how far over the line he could step.

So America is being tested, to hold the line against the authoritarian personalities among us, and to push the line back, as we try to overcome our own history as invaders and slavers.

June 1. Two comments from a Reddit thread about what non-Americans think of the protests, both with a good thread below. From Luxembourg:

Nobody here understands why you are so unable to reform the police. The clear problem is a severe lack of police accountability, a lack of non-violent training, way too short training spans, an omnipresence of guns, a militarized police and a deep-rooting institutional racism.

And from the other side:

Most of the world does not have a chance protesting the police. The thought of doing so will get you locked up. If you think you have it bad in the US, you have no idea how it is overseas. The police in developing countries get away with everything.

Also, here's a repost of a comment on this page from 2014, about civil wars:

Civil wars are first and foremost about local score settling. The trigger isn't some guy going door to door saying "you know those Yazidis? We're starting a group to get rid of them, would you like to know why?" Everyone was already itching to kill the Yazidis. The trigger in most civil wars is the sense that the long-repressed vengeance on your nearest and dearest enemies has become possible.

Civil wars are almost never geographic at first. Syria was not divided into "rebel" and "government" territories until after several weeks of fighting. Why? Because the government troops and the people who hated them were evenly dispersed around the country. Once the shooting broke out, some local battles went one way, some went another, and each side eventually had to work out supply lines connecting places where they'd won. Your loyalties aren't determined by your residency, your residency is determined by which army you're running away from.

Civil wars aren't anybody's program. Usually the two sides each feel like they are legitimate, and can't figure out what the other guys are playing at. They think "shit, these guys are clowns, let's just get them out of the way." Everybody underestimates the consequences of their actions, the time it will take, and the dying that will happen as a result. Nobody in Syria in 2011 was saying "right, lets call a protest, and in three years we'll be holed up in a burning hotel shooting twelve-year-olds in the head as they pull their mothers' bodies from a drainage canal!"

May 31. Picking up from last night, I wonder if this ever occurred to the authors of the Second Amendment: that the faction of citizens who have a lot of guns would be made weaker by their guns. It's because humans have recovered morally to the point where deadly force is really bad, and nobody wants to use it, at least domestically. So if the Trumpers want to revolt, as soon as one of them actually uses a gun, militarized police will respond with overwhelming force.

Meanwhile, other political factions have developed ways to engage the police without deadly force, and they have carved out a small grey area in the state monopoly on violence.

I know this was all sparked by bad cops, and these protests are a tactical move to reform policy. But that's not the only thing going on. This is also an attempted revival of primitive warfare, best described by Stanley Diamond in the book In Search of the Primitive. Of course there can be toxic cultures at any level of technology. But a lot of tribal cultures, and a lot of wild animals, know how to settle conflicts with physical aggression, while minimizing death and serious injury.

This archaic revival is still really clunky. Humans are not ready to revoke the state monopoly on violence. But that should be our long-term goal: laws about attacking people or property, that are blind to whether the attackers or victims are wearing uniforms.

And even if the police were perfect, I still think there is a healthy level of social unrest, and a good society will have room for careful street fighting, and well-constrained destruction of the human-made world. Some day, this kind of thing could be part of a festival.

May 30, late. It occurs to me, the people now fighting each other, will be fighting on the same side if the Trumpers try a revolution.

May 30. I just want to follow up from last night before the situation changes too much. I was in the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, and though they started out as a fun street party, they got increasingly ugly. But compare these protests to literally any war. The damage to buildings is less, the rate of serious injury is a tiny fraction, it's much easier to opt out, and a lot of people are having a good time, while in a war, no one is. And yet people will apologize for war and say that it's necessary. Maybe there's a necessary level of domestic unrest.

2020 is supposed to be a bad year, but I'm really impressed with how good a job humans are doing. Coronavirus is a cutting-edge pandemic, and it hasn't even killed one in ten thousand of us. It wasn't long ago that protesters would be cut down with live bullets. Compare the death of George Floyd to the death of Emmett Till, a 14 year old who was lynched after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, nobody was held accountable, and that was only 1955.

In 1955 Spain had a strict-definition fascist dictator, and now they have a guaranteed income. In 1955 there was no ecology movement, homosexuality was a mental illness, the average woman had five children, and psilocybin hadn't even been named yet. I mean, we still have a long way to go in terms of policy, but if you look at our understanding, it's like humans are finally starting to figure shit out.

May 29, late. I'm watching TV the sound off, listening to moody krautrock, and these riots are awesome! It's street theater, with just the right level of violence, in which the peasants are confronting the guards.

If the peasants are too aggressive, it hurts their cause. If the guards are too aggressive, the city burns. So the two sides meet on equal terms, in lines in the streets, and suddenly it's completely social. Women come forward and stand there chewing out the cops, and the cops have to listen.

Meanwhile, the men have evolved a gesture. They stand there with their hands up, technically a show of submission, but leaning forward dangerously. In 2050 you can buy a t-shirt of a guy with his arms upraised like that, wearing a covid mask.

May 29. A few notes on the Minneapolis riots. In the Rodney King riots, black people attacked white people and asians, just for their race. This time, what we saw on the TV was black people, with other races in supporting roles, fighting the police. Or, the rioters seem motivated by ideals of justice more than by tribalism.

Of course they burned a lot of stuff other than the police station, so part of their motivation is that it's fun to burn shit. But they understand, better than the president, that people are more important than property. Buildings and products are just a game we're all playing, and no one destroys a game that they're enjoying. Or, no one attacks an institution in which they feel they have full participation and agency.

So the spark for the riots was bad cops, but the fuel was a bad social order, in which both people and property are tokens in a game of turning money into more money, and the ratio of players to NPC's keeps getting lower. The main thing holding capitalism together, is governments making sure that we aren't starving.

A complex society in which everyone has full participation, is a hard problem that might take us another thousand years to solve. The problem of bad cops is a lot easier. The law just has to consistently hold police officers to the same standards as ordinary citizens, in how much they can hurt people. That might only take a few decades.

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."

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 - ?