Ran Prieur

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

- Karl Kraus


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August 19. Going back two weeks, this subreddit post, which got hung up in moderation, has some great thoughts on game changing 21st century technologies: Mars is impossible to terraform without a magnetic field; a caffeine shortage could cripple the industrial economy; AI will falter when it turns out that human labor is cheaper; biotech and drones could be big.

My favorite idea is that "the cellulase gene could be transferred from snails to humans," so that we could eat wood. That would have huge political effects, because there has never been a repressive society where people could easily live off the land.

But I want to go off on a tangent about the psychology of automation. The most powerful force in the world, and in the end, the only powerful force, is intrinsic motivation. If you want to get squishy, you can call it love. If people love doing something, you don't need to pay them, you don't need to burn oil or build windfarms to get the job done. Money and energy are props to raise and hold up a system that's built out of stuff that no one really wants to do. Also violence.

So mechanization only seems like a good idea in the context of a society that's already built out of onerous tasks. Capitalists can concentrate wealth without having to deal with labor. Progressives can disconnect production from repression. At the logical extreme, everything useful is done by machines, and all human activity is fun and useless.

I mean, I'd love to get high and play games all day while machines do all the work. But that's unrealistic, and more importantly, all things being equal, people would rather be useful.

This short video on desire lines is mostly about footpaths, and how the trend in college campus design is to not make paved paths until the informal paths reveal how people really want to walk. Now we just have to do the same thing with the entire economy.

August 18. What if Donald Trump were a D&D character? I'm using edition 3.0, and I'll start with the six ability scores, which for normal humans can range from 3-18, where 10.5 is average.

Strength: 5. He's an old man.
Dexterity: 10. He's an okay golfer.
Constitution: 14. He thinks exercise is bad for him, and he's still somewhat healthy at 74.
Intelligence: 7. He's probably never read a book all the way through.
Wisdom: 10. I'm tempted to go much lower, but D&D wisdom includes self-control and intuition.
Charisma: 16. I'm tempted to go higher, but his personal magnetism is better explained as a spell power.

Alignment: Neutral Evil. He's evil because he lacks compassion, seeks power, and has no moral code except what he can get away with. Despite his talk of "law and order", he has shown repeatedly that he's against the rule of law when it contradicts his personal rule, and he takes every opportunity to push America toward disorder. I don't think he's hot-headed or unpredictable enough to be chaotic evil, but this bit from the rulebook does fit him: "Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized."

Class: Sorcerer. Sorcerers have fewer spells than Wizards, but can cast them more often. Trump has only one spell, an upgraded Mass Charm, which allows him to affect an unlimited number of people through television and social media. Or it could be Hallucinatory Terrain, modified to create a false social and scientific landscape. Instead of feeling angry at Trumpers, I'm just grateful that I made the saving throw.

August 17. Matt, who works in theatre, comments on the last post:

There can be freedom and joy within a script too: it's the moment when, as an actor, you realize that you aren't bound by your last performance of the script and that there are dozens of choices in every line. It's that moment where you stop controlling how you look, how you sound, what the lines are supposed to mean. Some lines have more choices and some have fewer, but it's not so much that scripted theatre is 100% destiny where improvisation is 100% freewill.

It's like, for hundreds of years, Buddhist meditators have been asking the same questions: "What is this?" "Who am I?" and so on. They are scripted questions, but they don't have scripted answers. For theatre practitioners, doing Macbeth can be like koan practice. You say the lines, and forget yourself inside the story, and then between your commitment, and abandonment, and the audience's energy and reactions, something emerges. You don't build to the scene where the theme gets clothed in words. You let every piece of the story stand for itself.

Related: Dance training is superior to repetitive physical exercise in inducing brain plasticity in the elderly.

August 14. Important study, Young children would rather explore than get rewards. I think it's obvious that the shift from exploring to reward-seeking, which is normal in this culture, is a fall from grace, and I think it's both good and possible to reverse it.

In game design, reward-seeking is called grinding, and exploration is done in an open world. An open world may contain many grinds, but a grind cannot contain an open world.

A psychologist might call these two mental states reacting and choosing. A Buddhist might say that enlightenment is when choosing becomes your default state. In theater it would be the difference between reading a script and improvising.

When I improvise on piano, I might find a groove, where I keep playing a pattern that sounds good, until I get tired of it and go exploring for another groove. The best musicians make exploring beautiful, like John Cage's Dream.

August 12. No ideas this week, so I'll pull something from the archives. From April of 2016:

The difference between "freedom" and "power" seems clear: freedom means doing what you want, and power means telling other people what to do. But what if you cut someone off in traffic? To you, it feels like freedom, but to the other person it feels like power. More generally, freedom and power are words for talking about conflicts of interest. If there is no conflict of interest, if you want to do something that doesn't bother anyone else in any way, then you can just do it -- you don't need to play the "freedom" card to justify yourself.

Power sounds like fun, but in practice, unless you're sadistic or psychopathic, it's unpleasant to make other people do stuff they'd rather not do. This is why, when society has a power inbalance, it tends to hide it from the people who have power, because they want to feel like all they have is freedom.

August 10. Some woo-woo links, starting with two from the psychonaut subreddit. Reality is the trip and DMT is the trip stopper. And Psychedelic telepathy: An interview study.

And two from the ranprieur subreddit, since deleted. The Most Unsettling U.F.O. Theory is a nice video about the position that smart UFO researchers usually end up at: the phenomenon is neither space aliens, nor hallucinations, but some other level of reality, which we don't understand yet, and which somehow appears to us through our own cultural filters. So ancient angels, medieval fairies, and modern flying saucers are all the same thing. The video covers the airship flap of the late 1800's, and I would add, from this year, the mysterious drone sightings in Colorado.

Randonauts is about the practice of using random numbers to generate map coordinates, after forming an intention of what you want to find there. This is how the occult works: the first time you do it, you have a good chance of finding something amazing. If you continue doing it, results will get weaker and weaker, until as a whole, the data appear meaningless. Also, it's often how science works.

August 6. Today, some thoughts on game-changing technologies of the 21st century, starting with the most overrated.

I think we've got virtual reality all wrong. We imagine, if we can just throw enough pixels at an eyescreen, enough gigabytes at a sensory interface, we won't even care if the world is real. I think there are video games from the 1990's that are more immersive than any virtual worlds that will be made in this century -- unless we get another creative environment like the 1990's. Making a world that people want to stay in is hard. It's an art, and art can only be done well by individuals or small teams that are obsessed with their vision, and indifferent to money.

Also overrated: biotech. I think we're missing something, and Rupert Sheldrake is on the right track. DNA will turn out to not be the foundation of biology, but more like a tuner for some level that we haven't discovered yet. So we can't just make any creature we want by hacking DNA, any more than you can make a new TV show by hacking your set.

Where I see promise in biotech, is in vat-grown meat, and other ways to make food that's more affordable and less ecologically harmful.

Artificial intelligence could be big, but not in the way we think. This is already a common idea on the cutting edge of AI: we're obsessed with making machines indistinguishable from humans, when the real action is in making machines that are intelligent in ways that are alien to humans.

The holy grail of AI is understanding causality. As long as AI's do not understand causality, the more power we give them, the more we put ourselves at risk. And if they ever do understand causality, all bets are off.

Also big but not in the way we think: space exploration. I've written that colonizing Mars is a religion. But now, after watching this new video, Mars in 4K, while listening to Hildegard Von Bingen, on weed, I understand that colonizing Mars is a really good religion. It's all about humanity reaching for transcendence, and this time it's physically possible. Those rocks are real.

I still think it's a trick. Mars seems to be training us for interstellar travel, when really it's training us in ecology. Because if we get there, we'll want to terraform it, and terraforming Mars is so much harder than re-terraforming Earth, that by the time we're growing lichens on Daedalia Planum, we'll be planting food forests in the Sahara.

Finally, the big one. We already have psychedelic drugs so good, that if they become legal, they'll change religion so much that we might stop using that word. There will be no more telling people about unseen worlds. If we're all tripping, we'll all be seeing them, and the role of spiritual leaders will be to help us make sense of what we're seeing.

What if LSD and DMT are teases, for far more sophisticated tools for real-time brain-hacking? We might all get sockets in our skulls, but they won't be for feeding us some world designed by programmers. It will turn out to be both easier, and more interesting, to just unlock the worlds that are already there, that our brains were filtering.

August 3. Unrelated stuff, starting with more Coronavirus. Here's a chart that shows the United States cases per day, and this chart shows the deaths per day. Notice that the April deaths per day were double the July deaths per day, and yet the July cases per day were double the April cases per day. It's strange that nobody's talking about this.

I see three possibilities. 1) Testing is revealing more cases, and the actual infection rate in April was up to four times higher. 2) Deaths are not being counted, and the death rate right now is up to four times higher. 3) The virus is up to four times less deadly, either through a) better medical care, b) younger people getting it, or c) mutation.

New subject, from the psychonaut subreddit, a trip report where a guy talked to his own subconscious. He noticed that his hands were doing stuff without his head, so he started asking his hands questions, and they would respond with thumbs up or thumbs down. My first thought is, if we could develop a cheap technology that could do this reliably, it would be the biggest thing ever. My next thought is, the real mystery is not the subconscious, but the modern human mode of consciousness. How did we end up with this thing that controls everything we do, yet it understands so little?

New subject, from the Ask Old People subreddit, What are some things that actually sucked about the 1950s? This makes me optimistic, because if the world got that much better in 50 years, how much better can it get in the next 50? Also, as much as we like to bash the boomers, it was mostly them who drove those changes. I'm hopeful that Gen Z, whatever they end up calling themselves, will finally sort out the economy so that money stops ruining everything.

For example, The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free. What the essay is mainly about, is that we have the technology, right now, to have an information utopia, but economics is getting in the way, specifically intellectual property, and that poverty prevents creative people from giving their stuff away free.

July 30. Some thoughts on Coronavirus. It's strange that it's taken it this long to kill someone whose name I already knew. That person is Herman Cain. Given that the virus is disproportionately affecting minorities and Trumpers, it's fitting that he's the most famous person who's both.

If you get sick, the COVID-19 Positive subreddit is a good resource.

And I don't have an agenda about whether COVID-19 is man-made, but there seems to be a taboo against that idea among supposedly neutral scientists. The fight for a controversial article is about two virologists who "believe it has certain properties which would not evolve naturally" but are struggling to get published. And here's a pdf of their article.

I'm in no position to say if they're right -- I just think the sociology of the controversy is interesting. Part of the problem is that most people don't have the cognitive tools to navigate the middle ground of conspiracy theory. So it's either, whatever happens was a meaningless accident, or whatever happens was planned to happen exactly that way.

More generally, consensus defaults to safety, and there is safety in meaninglessness. As soon as you let agency in the door, people get crazy.

July 28. Yesterday's post came out of my own mental state. Lately life is feeling like an uphill climb through a disenchanted world. So I've doubled down on pain, cutting out some bad habits, working harder to improve my posture, and meditating more.

None of this has paid off yet, but in my time away from the computer, I'm reading a rare classic of philosophy, The Psychic Grid by Beatrice Bruteau. I can't even remember where I got my copy, but it fits well with Donald Hoffman's The Case Against Reality.

July 27. I'm still on semi-vacation from blogging. I keep my laptop on a stand-up desk in the corner of my bedroom, and this corner increasingly feels like a place of compulsion and dread. Twenty years ago the internet was miraculous. Now it's a Kafka nightmare of passwords and updates, a land of hungry bots seeking ad revenue. Even at the most personal level, I sense an undercurrent of loneliness, people desperate for a social connection that you're just not going to get through a screen.

If you strip it down to fundamentals, the internet is an engine for generating low-quality demands on human attention, and if the whole thing disappeared tomorrow, it would be so relieving.

July 23. And some optimistic links. More precisely, the category is how much room humans have to do things better.

Olalekan Jeyifous Is Imagining an Afrofuturist Brooklyn. These images are awesome. I would call it ecofuturism, but it's interesting that Africa seems to be on the cutting edge of making the human-made world more like the non-human-made world.

Giant flywheel project in Scotland could prevent UK blackouts, by stabilizing the unstable energy that comes from windfarms.

Spreading rock dust on fields could remove vast amounts of CO2 from air. It's also good for the soil, and cheaper than other carbon sink strategies.

Reinventing the brick (thanks Stephen). These new bricks are made out of construction waste, with a much smaller ecological footprint than regular bricks.

And an article about Eugene, Oregon replacing some cops with medics and mental health workers, more than 30 years ago.

July 20. Still feeling dumb this week. It's probably the heat. Here are all the negative links I've been saving up.

Jamie Loftus, the Comedian Who Infiltrated Mensa:

Loftus attributes Firehouse's far-right politics to Mensa's toxic belief in a fixed intellectual hierarchy. "There is no overstating what community can do for someone who, as many members described to me, feel like misfits in their everyday lives and want to belong somewhere. A society with murky goals whose selling point is superiority is not a healthy place to find it."

Related: Beware of Being Right:

Certainty itself is an emotional state, not an intellectual one. To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes, which, of course, greatly increases its already high error rate during emotional arousal. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong in some respect.

Reddit thread, What is something that's considered normal today but is actually a successful propaganda made by corporations? And a comment on why targeted advertising is bad.

A critique of efficiency, which in practice is making our lives worse so that money can concentrate itself better.

The abstract of a paper, The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration. You guessed it, the more expensive the wedding, the shorter the marriage.

Finally, a dark reddit thread, What the fastest way you've seen someone ruin their life?

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.

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 always put the best stuff in the archives, and in spring of 2020 I went through and edited the pages so they're all fit to link here. The dates below are the starting dates for each archive.

2005: January / June / September / November
2006: January / March / May / August / November / December
2007: February / April / June / September / November
2008: January / March / May / July / September / October / November
2009: January / March / May / July / September / December
2010: February / April / June / November
2011: January / April / July / October / December
2012: March / May / August / November
2013: March / July
2014: January / April / October
2015: March / August / November
2016: February / May / July / November
2017: February / May / September / December
2018: April / July / October / December
2019: February / March / May / July / December
2020: February / April / June