"Das Chaos sei willkommen, denn die Ordnung hat versagt."
- Karl Kraus
July 17. I've been dull-headed and busy this week, but I have more thoughts on the subconscious. Thanks Matt for inspiring this dystopian thought experiment: what if lie detectors got really good, and we used them all the time?
The techno-optimist first thought is, all the truth would be brought to the surface. But the machines that we now call "lie detectors" don't detect truth. They don't even detect lies. They're tools of intimidation that detect the fear of getting caught.
The way to beat lie detectors, which we're already really good at, is self-deception: to completely believe whatever you're saying.
Then where does the truth go? It gets buried in the subconscious. So the effect of widespread and strong "lie detection" would be the shrinking of the conscious mind. Any part of your identity that you would get in trouble for, would have to be hidden, leaving your surface mind sincere and clueless, walled off from the truth.
But this has already happened. The mechanism is inside us: that if there's something too socially unacceptable, we find it easier to just never look at it, than to look at it and keep it in balance with our public self.
I think the subconscious is totally conscious. That's why nobody says, "and then I became gay." They say, "and then I found out I was gay all along." It's right there, it's you, but "you" don't notice it.
In Freudian terms, you are the id, and "you" are the superego, a personality module for getting along socially, which has taken over the whole self. Expanding the self is hard. You can't tame the id, but you can train your moment-to-moment attention to ride it. And it's good to assume there's always more.
July 14. A short comment thread on Tulpas and the illusion of conscious unity, including a cool story where MakeTotalDestr0i was alone for six months and had complex people appear in his head.
And from this thread, a quote from Carl Jung, who was way ahead of us in figuring this stuff out:
The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor's consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.
July 13. I want to go back to Tulpas. I've always seen the word used for an occult entity, something like a poltergeist or a minor genie, that does stuff out in the world to serve its human creator, but has a mind of its own. The newer meaning is for something that remains completely inside your head. So it's in the same territory as imaginary friends or multiple personalities, but it's done with full intention by sane adults.
My crazy thought is, what if this becomes a long-term trend? What if it's the next stage of human cultural evolution? By 2100, most people will have two or three Tulpas, and you'll introduce them whenever you meet someone. There will be classes on how to make them, and bestsellers on how to switch your mind from one to another to do different tasks.
Looking back at history, they'll say that Tulpas were there all along. They'll bring in Julian Jaynes and say that in ancient times we took them for gods. Then we buried them in the subconscious, where they often became evil and drove wars and genocides. In the 20th century, when they started to come out in the open, they appeared as mental illness, but now that we know how to work with them, they're mostly benign and helpful.
I love the niceness of the Tulpa community, but I think they're underestimating the dangers. Here's a good comment, from the Psychonaut subreddit, on the spirit world. You can take it all as metaphorical if you want, but the idea is that letting entities inside you is serious, and should be done with great care.
July 10. Ennio Morricone died this week. Despite his long career, he is rightly best known for his early soundtracks to Sergio Leone westerns. The scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, where Tuco runs through the cemetery to Ecstasy of Gold, is my favorite scene in all of film, but the music is more epic in the final shootout, The Trio. Both scenes are music videos, because Leone had Morricone compose the music first, and then shot the scenes to fit.
Demystifying Science is a great blog that I've just discovered. This post is a solid critique of the Big Bang, and this post on the Endocannabinoid System has valuable advice for stoners: that CBD, while it has no mental effects by itself, "appears to provide overt medical benefits and balances the negative effects of THC."
This reddit thread may help your mental health. If you had a friend who spoke to you in the same way that you sometimes speak to yourself, how long would you allow this person to be your friend? Related, the subreddit just linked to the subreddit on Tulpas: "A tulpa is believed to be an autonomous consciousness coinhabiting a brain with their creator, often with a form of their creator's initial choice and design."
My favorite sport, women's soccer, has started up with a tournament instead of a full season, and the best goal so far is this magnificent header by Shea Groom.
July 8. Continuing from Monday, this subreddit post reports a mushroom-induced mental state "very similar" to states encountered in meditation. I must be bad at meditation, because I've put in hundreds of hours, and tried a lot of techniques, and I have yet to experience anything remotely trippy. Meditation is like flossing my teeth, a painful duty that's good for me. The one way it feels good, is that by focusing on my body, I've developed what I call a full-body glow, typically in the morning before getting up.
I wonder how much room we have to do meditation better. Linked from above, this chapter on concentration states mentions that different techniques work better for different types of people, but "this sort of information is not in common use today." And Matt sends this helpful page, Six Ways to Meditate.
And of course I wonder how much room we have to do psychedelics better. It's possible that we're already past the point of diminishing returns, in finding more molecules and better ways to use them, or it's possible that we've barely begun. Certainly we've barely begun with other forms of physical brain-hacking. Maybe in a few years I can go in for amygdala stapling to cure my anxiety.
Some links from the Psychonaut subreddit. What I've figured out so far is a fascinating metaphysical framework inspired by DMT:
There is only one reality. Heaven, Hell, and mortal life are not three different things. They are one single thing.... This one single reality is connection to all things, if you are ready for it you experience this as Heaven. If you are not ready for it you experience this as Hell.
A short comment thread, Most of us have been told 1000 times that the stove is hot, but psychedelics let you touch the stove.
A long comment thread, When you're on acid, things happen that would otherwise never have happened. What are your examples of this phenomenon?
And an article, Mainstreaming Psychedelics: Secularizing spirituality with the aid of Eastern religion. The main idea is that we can put psychedelic experiences on a spectrum, where at one pole is the Eastern unitive-mystical state, being one with everything, and at the other pole is the Western interactive-relational state, where you can get specific practical insights.
July 6. Continuing on psychedelics, there's a common idea, even among psychonauts, that drugs are just a shortcut to get somewhere that you can get without them. I mean, if what you want is to be emotionally healthy and have a good life, then sure, you don't even need to drink coffee. But I think the idea of having a drug-like mental state without drugs is wishful thinking, even magical thinking, about the power of the unassisted brain.
I would love to see a step-by-step process, something on the same order of difficulty as playing a musical instrument, where even after a few hours you can see results, and at high skill levels you can meet machine elves or step outside of time. Instead I see a spiritual elite making vague and untested promises about the benefits of doing what they say for thousands of hours.
There's a famous story of Ram Dass giving LSD to a guru, who just sat there as if it wasn't affecting him. There are doubts about whether this really happened, but even if it did, it's not evidence that the drug didn't affect the guru, let alone that he already had LSD consciousness. It's only evidence that he had the mental discipline to not show the effects outwardly.
Meditation and drugs are not two ways up the same mountain -- they're two different mountains. Meditation is about training your awareness of where and how you focus your attention, and your agility in changing that focus, within the world that your brain is tuning in. Drugs are about changing your brain's filter to alter that world.
This model actually makes meditation more important. If meditation does basically the same thing as drugs, but with more work, than we lazy people have no reason to do it. But if they complement each other, if meditation makes drugs better and drugs make meditation better, then we should be doing both.
July 3. I've heard that John Michael Greer wants to start a religion. (Update: here's the thread.) I'd advise him to do a lot of psychedelics, because by the end of this century almost everyone will be doing them, and some metaphysical ideas can survive that, and some can't.
I've been asked why I'm so optimistic. My answer is that I've walked up a wild stream in midsummer on LSD. I don't want to use the word "nature" because there's always some jerk who says "everything is natural" -- a valid semantic choice, which erases a really valuable distinction, which I preserve by framing it as the human-made world vs the non-human-made world.
The non-human-made world is basically heaven. You don't need LSD to see it but it helps. And beside it, or often on top of it, the human-made world is like mean kids playing with blocks, all clunky and ugly.
And yet, humans are supposedly better than trees and grass and bugs and birds. Maybe that's an illusion, and we're intrinsic degenerates who need to go extinct. But if we really are better, then we have the potential, instead of poisoning and paving the non-human-made world, to take that riotous beauty and run with it.
For a tease of what we could do, look at the picture at the top of this 2015 article, Wonderful Widgets. With 3D printing and evolutionary design, a crude component has been turned into one that looks like art -- and is more functional.
In terms of culture, game theory predicts the eventual victory of cooperators over dominators. We've already done it many times at the tribal scale, and we've only been playing with large complex societies for a short time.
In the short term, things look bad. The climate, the economy, and the internet are all going to get worse. The meaninglessness of modern life will continue to produce mass insanity. Right now we're passing through a bottleneck. The reason George Floyd's death was so powerful, and the reason mask-wearing has been so politicized, is that we all feel suffocated by this dreadful world that our recent ancestors have made for us, and it's getting tighter. But eventually there will be a reopening, and I think we're still at the beginning of history.
July 2. Continuing from yesterday, I just want to say a bit about systemic racism. I think it's a mistake to try to define it in terms of laws. There are some racist laws, like crack cocaine having worse penalties than regular cocaine, but there are also affirmative action laws that go the other way.
Where I see systemic racism, is in the largely subconscious habits of ordinary people, of treating different races differently. It shows up in a million snap decisions, often by people who think they see all races as equal. The funny thing is, it's easier to see it if you're an object of it, than if you're doing it.
July 1. A few days ago, some North Carolina cops were fired after being caught on video saying they can't wait for martial law because "We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fucking n-----s." And yet they say they're not racist. Do they actually believe that?
I think they do, and it's partly the fault of the mainstream left, for encouraging a concept of what racism is, that has almost no basis in reality. You can see it all the time in badly written TV shows, like the Rosa Parks episode of Doctor Who. As soon as a racist sees a person with the wrong skin color, they go full-on Voldemort.
Actual racism is a lot like a sports team rivalry. You understand intellectually that fans of your rival team are fully human, and it's not hard for you to treat them as fully human, one on one; but in aggregate, it's fun to think of them as the enemy, and it's frightening that they might have power over you.
June 29. Not feeling smart this week, so I'll just post some unrelated links. Why the US military usually punishes misconduct but police often close ranks. Because the military has developed a culture that puts organizational loyalty ahead of personal loyalty. That's really hard to do, and it might turn out that the only way to reform police departments is to do what Minneapolis is doing, and rebuild them from scratch.
Wireless is a trap, because it seems to make stuff easier, but a lot of the frustrating behavior of computers comes down to sketchy wireless tech. Conclusion: "If we took 10% of the effort we currently spend on removing wires from everything, and put it into ingenious cable routing solutions instead, I'd bet that a lot of wireless-dependent activities like video calls would be way more pleasant."
Lemmy is the name of a new alternative to Reddit. Personally I find the new reddit unusable, and if they ever remove the option to use old.reddit.com, I'll spend a lot less time on the internet.
Show Your Stripes is a nice user interface for looking at global warming.
And a repost from the blog archives, from July 2013:
Concise article, The Eye of Sauron Is the Modern Surveillance State, arguing that Tolkien understood surveillance better than Orwell. All three points are important: 1) A system that lacks empathy can see everything but fail to understand motivations. 2) Surveillance is reactive and clumsy. 3) The more raw data the system collects, the harder it is to pick out the important stuff.
June 26. Three links from readers. In the last week two different people have told me about Peter Turchin and his theories about cycles of history. I think it's easy to make a model that predicts that past, and almost impossible to make one that predicts the future. But it's interesting (and unsurprising) that Turchin has found and charted a strong inverse correlation between elite overproduction and popular well-being.
Inside the Social Media Cult That Convinces Young People to Give Up Everything. Reading this, it occurs to me that the actual beliefs of the cult are arbitrary. When you strip it down, a cult is an engine that takes people with unmet needs for meaning and belonging, and chews them up to generate power for the cult leaders. In between those two things, it's just whatever works.
And an interview about the Madness of Knowledge, a book that investigates how we feel about what we think. I would say it like this: First you have a thought, or find a thought. Then you have an emotional reaction, either feeling good about the thought or feeling bad about it. Then you have another thought, which says, "No emotions here! Only pure, clean thoughts, which I will now use to explain why the first thought is correct or incorrect" -- whichever one you felt it should be.
To not be a slave of this process, you need a particular skill: observing your feelings about your thoughts. This skill is a kind of intelligence. How much saner would the world be, if we taught it and tested for it?
June 24. Back to Coronavirus, I saw a guy on CNN who said two interesting things. First, even when young people get it and recover, they have long-term lung damage, which appears on a CT scan as "ground glass opacity." So I'm thinking the virus could have a subtle death toll that's higher than the obvious one, if the average infected person has years taken off the end of their life.
Second, he grew up before ordinary people could get antibiotics, and before the polio vaccine, and he talked about how much more careful people were, back then, about avoiding infection.
You've probably seen this chart of Coronavirus cases in EU vs US. What's wrong with America? My guess is, as the most powerful nation in the world, America became a breeding ground for a mental state where people think the rules don't apply to them and they can never lose.
It reminds me of a bit in this New Yorker piece on Frank Ramsey, a super-smart mathematician and philosopher who died at 26. And "he wrote, in his last year, that there are many kinds of sentences that we think state facts about the world but that are really just expressions of our attitudes."
More Coronavirus links, mostly from Reddit. Survivors of COVID, what changes have you noticed to your health since you've recovered?
A long comment on Coronavirus phases and treatments.
A good thread, Who liked the world better when it was closed?
And linked from Weird Collapse last week, COVID-19 Broke the Economy. What If We Don't Fix It?
June 23. Continuing on the thorny subject of race, Matt comments:
Oddly, as language has been more and more policed for racism, the most problematic terms are allowed to persist. There's no term more problematic than "white". It's not literally descriptive. It's ethnically vague. It has deep associations with rightness and purity. And yet no one on the left, which I'm aware of, has seriously suggested doing away with it.
I can name one person who has, Noel Ignatiev. I think he was way ahead of his time, and the abolition of the social construct of whiteness is eventually going to happen. It's hard to imagine how to get there from here, when the right needs whiteness as a hero and the left needs whiteness as a villain. But one big step, which might happen in this century, is for all forms that ask for race to have a "null" option. And then more and more people, of all ancestries, could opt out of identifying as any race at all.
June 22. It occurs to me, this left wing political correctness regime is like how conquering peoples prevent conquered peoples from speaking their native language. This time, we're not being allowed to use language with any hint of racism, and the idea is, by killing the language, you kill the culture.
If a language conjures up something unreal, then killing the language kills that thing; but if a language reflects something real, then killing the language only hides that thing. For example, almost all nature-based languages have been lost, along with countless words for ecological concepts, but we're rediscovering those concepts and making words for them. Even the word "ecology" was not invented until the late 1800's.
Is racism real or unreal? I see racism as a subset of tribalism, which I define as identification with a group, where the group identity is based on conflict with other groups. Tribalism is a deep part of human nature, and it will probably never go away.
The thing about racism that's unreal is race. Geneticists say race is an illusion -- they haven't found any genetic markers that can define it. And the way we think about race was only invented a few hundred years ago. Here's a good article about it, The Enlightenment's Dark Side:
Race as we understand it - a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination - is a product of the Enlightenment. Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery.
Black Lives Matter is a good idea right now, but in the long term, it is both good and possible to not even have the concept of black lives or white lives, only human lives.
June 21. Quick note: in 2013, I posted about that year's edge.org question, What should we be worried about? That link is the official page. And this is an archive.org capture of that page, What should be worried about?
Scroll down about a third, and right between Naughton and Scheiner, the archive has an answer by mathematician Steven Strogatz, which is missing from the newest version, even though the count at the top still says there are 155 responses. I don't know why they think they removed it, probably some bullshit legal reason, but as an optimistic paranoid, I notice that the effect of the removal, from a page that nobody is looking at anyway, is that I'm giving it special attention, and I've reposted it here: Too Much Coupling.
The basic idea is, if a complex system has too many ways for the different parts to influence each other, the whole thing can break down in the same way that too much brain coupling causes an epileptic seizure.
June 19. Today, some topical politics. Don't you hate it when you open a bag of apples, and one of them is bad, and when you go to throw it out, half of the other apples call in sick in protest? That's what Atlanta cops did, after one of them was charged with murder for shooting a fleeing suspect twice in the back.
What if a black guy shot a fleeing white cop twice in the back, and when he was charged with murder, half the black people in Atlanta called in sick in protest?
There are two things going on here. One is that law enforcement culture has a sense of entitlement, in the right to use deadly force. The other is that white culture has a sense of entitlement, in having a higher social position than other races. Obviously, not all cops or all white people. But enough of them that it's going to take a lot of work to unravel it.
How weird is it that taking precautions against a pandemic has been politicized? Never in the history of right vs left, or liberal vs conservative, has this happened, and it's largely the work of one man.
Imagine you have total mind-control over Donald Trump, under the condition that he still has to seem to be himself, and imagine your goal is to kill as many of his followers as you possibly can. Could you do any better than he's already doing? Personally, I couldn't even do as well. The other day he said, "Some Americans are wearing masks because they don't like me." The message is, if you like me, you won't wear a mask at my campaign rally.
Now, I don't think killing his followers is Trump's conscious goal -- I think it's his subconscious goal, and I'm wondering who his subconscious is working for.
June 17. Some stray technology links, starting with a smart one about AI: Human-Level Intelligence or Animal-Like Abilities? What I would say, which is not quite what the author is saying, is that everyone wants computers that are smart like we are, but the actual progress in AI is being made in systems that do not understand concepts in the way that humans do, but that work anyway. "Cats have navigation abilities that are far superior to any of those in existing automatous-navigation systems, including self-driving cars."
A couple weeks ago, on the same day as the Space-X launch, this also happened, and it might end up being more important: Electric-powered Cessna makes maiden flight, "the largest all-electric passenger or cargo aircraft ever to fly."
A weird idea that's obvious in hindsight: Stanford lab envisions delivery drones that save energy by taking the bus.
And after a retrofit, the Golden Gate Bridge makes trippy music when the wind blows.
June 15. I meant to post this more than a week ago, but other stuff got in the way: Weirdos during the depression is a short blog post about two characters in classic novels, one who pretends to be a miserable drunk so people won't bother him about his mixed-race marriage, and one who pretends to have a gruesome facial scar so people won't bother him about his beard.
Here's the Hacker News thread and the subreddit thread, where I said this: "If you break rules that other people are following, you have to pretend to be unhappy, or they'll get really mad, because they don't want to face the grief that they could have been breaking the rules themselves all this time."
Again digging into the archives, the rest of this post is from July of 2008:
One of my favorite bits in the Bible is the parable of the jealous workers: Some workers show up at a farm in the morning, and agree to work all day for a certain wage. Then some other workers show up in the afternoon, and they get the same amount of money for only working half a day. And the morning workers say, "No faaaair!" And Jesus says, "Morning workers, you consented to that deal and it's wrong for you to resent someone for getting a better deal."
To this day, religious scholars have trouble taking the parable at face value, but if you think it through it makes perfect sense. If the morning workers get their way, if it's not fair for people who came later to get a better deal, then the world can never get any better.
June 12. When I started this site in 2002, I named it after myself and not some subject, because then, whatever I end up writing about, the name is still accurate. But I still have to deal with the energy that bounces back from everything I've ever written. My latest project, to clean up that energy, has been to go through the entire blog archives and cut them down to stuff that I still like. I don't want people to ask "What did Ran Prieur think about this?" I want them to say, "Hey, this guy has some good ideas."
I purged almost all presidential politics, and a lot of wrong predictions. (I didn't notice any right predictions.) And I found myself cutting a lot of final paragraphs, where after I had the good ideas, I tried to say why the ideas were important. Every archive is now linked from the bottom of this page.
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)