Ran Prieur

"You should get off on the dirt on your feet"

-Automatic, "Too Much Money"


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November 30. Catching up on links, starting with a discussion on Weird Collapse, about a study showing that unconditional cash transfers work much better than psychotherapy at making people's lives better. This reminds me of a robust finding about therapy, which has been known since the 1970's: that the kind of therapy doesn't matter. What matters is the relationship between the therapist and the patient.

Three quick links on drugs. Wheat's Evil Twin Has Been Intoxicating Humans For Centuries. And, How Magic Mushrooms Are Changing the Lives of Terminal Cancer Patients. And a speculation about genetically engineering kombucha to produce psilocybin.

Some doom. Peak Oil Never Went Away. And Deep Frozen Arctic Microbes Are Waking Up.

And some good news. Voters Overwhelmingly Back Community Broadband in Chicago and Denver. It's funny, Americans hate "socialism" in general. But in a lot of specific cases, we like it.

And Birds Sing to Their Eggs, and the singing affects their embryonic development, which can help them adapt to climate change.

November 25. Going early into the holiday weekend, two personal recordings. Erik has just posted a podcast he recorded with me this summer, Mini Truth #1: The Future of Civilization.

And last night I made another piano recording. This was over at my dad's house, on an actual piano, recorded on two vintage Sansa Clip mp3 players, for the left and right channels, so about as lo-fi as it gets. It only took me about 100 hours to get to this level. I'm not even using the black keys yet. I wish meditation paid off this well.

November 24. Again posted to Weird Collapse, Welcome to the new Middle Ages. It's a fascinating argument:

In our economic structure, our politics, our identity and our sex lives we are moving away from the trends that were common between the first railway and first email. But what if the modern age was the anomaly, and we're simply returning to life as it has always been?

I'm not sure if the author is really onto something, or if he's just cherry-picking similarities between us and pre-modern people, that are mostly accidental rather than having some common cause.

For example, celibacy. It was high in the Middle Ages because almost everyone belonged to a religion in which almost everything sexual was immoral. That's no longer the case. My guess is, celibacy is rising now for two reasons. First, we've invented a lot more ways to feel good, which sex has to compete with. Second, our social landscape has become so delicate and complex, that in the journey from first meeting someone to having sex, there are a lot more ways to fail. And keeping a relationship going is even harder.

Related: a review of a new book called The Light Ages, about how medieval people were a lot smarter than modern people think.

November 23. A nice thread on Weird Collapse, Use this post to talk about how you're doing as the world slowly unravels.

I just got back from Seattle, where the woods by my sister's house now have a bunch of homeless campers, and the retail neighborhoods are half boarded-up. To prep for the drive home, I took a longer-than-usual break from weed, and my dreams have been more vivid. This morning, I was eluding a tracker in a city, and I entered a library, where I found a tiny book, published in 1898, called Thoughts on the Flat Earth. I read it, and there was nothing about the earth being literally flat, but it was very beautiful.

Then I woke up and saw this awesome video (thanks Arne), Celui qui tombe, a dance that represents life, done on a rotating platform.

November 20. Back in 2014, I made a video for one of my favorite songs, just using the cover art from the album. Two weeks ago, some puritanical bot took offense at that image, and YouTube notified me that it had been age-restricted.

Luckily, I had a folder of good images, mostly anime fan art, all ready for a new video. So the other night I used a weed session to winnow them down and find the right order. It's funny, whenever I do this, I start with the images all random, and right-arrow through them with the song playing, and three or four of them will already be in the perfect spot.

The song is about a real person, but the video is completely about the world inside my head: Big Blood - The Rise of Quinnisa Rose.

By the way, inevitably, YouTube keeps getting worse. Here's a Hacker News thread about their new policy of showing ads on all videos even if creators don't want them.

November 18. Two long articles about collapse. From the Atlantic, The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse is about Peter Turchin, a historian whose mathematical models predicted an "age of discord" beginning around 2020. The nice thing about historians is they have no bias against predicting collapse, while mainstream economists and technologists have to be optimists. On the other hand, historians do have a bias against predicting something that has never happened.

And from the NY Times, How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart? It's mostly about Joseph Tainter, but there's an interesting section at the end about scholars who are "questioning the entire notion of collapse." I would say it like this: Collapse is something that archaeologists see, when they look at ruins. But when you look at the lives of ordinary people, you see changing opportunities, doors closing and other doors opening. So they might say, "Oh no, our buildings are falling to ruin." Or they might say, "At last, I have better options than maintaining these damn buildings."

November 16. Still on vacation from topical politics, some links on other subjects. Life on the Outside "is a podcast that shares stories about returning to society after decades of incarceration." (Thanks Dan.)

Chili pepper consumption associated with 25% reduction in death from any cause. That link goes to the Hacker News comment thread, with lots of ideas for how this could happen without chili peppers actually being good for you. My guess is, there's a cultural correlation between people who eat bland food and people who aren't careful about their health. Update: my next thought is that old people don't eat chili peppers and young people do. So you could also find a reduction in death associated with, say, watching Pokemon.

The apocalypse continues, as One in five COVID-19 patients develop mental illness within 90 days:

The study analysed electronic health records of 69 million people in the United States, including more than 62,000 cases of COVID-19.... In the three months following testing positive for COVID-19, 1 in 5 survivors were recorded as having a first time diagnosis of anxiety, depression or insomnia.

Some nice advice in this thread, People 50+ who battled depression in their 20s, did it get any better, and if it did, what changed or what did you do?

I'm looking forward to legal psychedelics, because they're good for me. But every time there's a new thing, there is money to be made by selling it to people who are better off without it. And psychedelics are dangerous things to be better off without, and use anyway. This thread is about one of those dangers: Does anyone else feel like several posts made in this subreddit are made by people that think they are the messiah of the psychedelic Renaissance?

And the apocalypse continues, as Scientists grow bigger monkey brains using human genes. The study author says: "To let them come to be born, in my opinion, would have been irresponsible as a first step." So, how many steps before Petgenix is selling us talking dogs?

November 12. Even farther off the usual subjects, today I want to recommend a wine and review a movie. We try a lot of under $10 red wine, and to my taste, a Portuguese blend called Colossal Reserva blows them all away. It's smooth, balanced, full-bodied, and stays good a long time after opening.

My favorite film of the 2010's is The Witch (2015). Every October we watch a lot of horror movies, and when we watched it last year, it stuck with me for days afterward. So this year I rewatched it, and it's not a horror film -- it's an art film: slow-paced, meticulously crafted, with top-notch acting and a radical personal vision. The writer-director, Robert Eggers, went on to make The Lighthouse (2019), which is even more stark and ambitious, and right now he's filming a Viking revenge saga called The Northman.

The Witch is about a Puritan family, in 1630's New England, who are exiled from their fortified town and make a farm at the edge of a spooky primal forest. Spoilers follow... Where a normal horror film might keep the audience in suspense about whether witches are real, we find out right away, when a baby vanishes and the next shot is a hunched figure carrying it through the forest. And then, where a normal movie would have a balanced conflict between the two sides, the overly moral Christians and the amoral forest creatures, The Witch gives us a total curbstomp by the baddies. The family fails to score a single point, except against each other, falling into suspicion and conflict as they're destroyed.

The protagonist, a teenage girl named Thomasin, is the most sane member of the family, and the first one the others blame when anything goes wrong. That's something a lot of us can relate to, being around crazy people who are hostile to anyone who doesn't share their insanity. Also, it was the first big role for Anya Taylor-Joy, who's been in everything lately, including the very highly rated show The Queen's Gambit. Her acting is fine, but the remarkable thing about her is her look, with eyes almost impossibly large and far apart. If humans really do turn into elves, that's what we'll want to look like.

November 9. Writing about politics and society is seductive but exhausting. I'm taking the week off. Today, some woo-woo links. The Big Study is a blog by a veteran paranormal writer, and this summer he did an impressive eleven-part "Summa Faeryologica". You might want to start with part one, but I started with part eleven, because it's at the top and the most interesting, and worked my way down.

I see a lot of room for cross-pollination between paranormal researchers, and scientists focusing on the increasing evidence that there is no third-person reality. The latest book on that subject is The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman. If reality is 100% first person, if our senses are like desktop icons for an incomprehensible world of interrelating perspectives, then it should not freak us out when reliable witnesses defy consensus reality.

More examples in this recent reddit thread, What was the strangest moment in your life that you still can't explain upto this day?

And three posts on the psychonaut subreddit. A decent collection of trip reports, How many have met god(s)? What did your learn?

When I was a child I fell asleep, woke up inside a womb, was born, lived an entire life, died and woke back up in this life. It's rare, but other people have independently reported the same kind of thing, and the comment thread links to this report of a ten year alternate life in a near-death experience.

This report is more psychological than metaphysical. Without drugs, just through emotions:

Suddenly, my vision changed and I was inside my body for the first time in my life. I remember looking at my hands and thinking: omg I am a human too! I have a body! ... When my relative came into my room, I felt separated from them for the first time. I could think and choose what to say, I no longer reacted and no longer cared so much about how they perceive me. I did not feel connected any more to anyone. I felt fully inside myself, and other people were other people, with their own thoughts and problems and personalities.... I felt really good and I remember thinking "so this is how everyone else feels, this is what it's like to be human."

The comments are like, cool, you had a trip. But I take it at face value: we're all walking around assuming that everyone experiences reality the same way that we do, but there are radically different ways to be human, and we only find out if we can somehow shift from one to another. What this person reports, feeling starkly separate from other people, is how I feel all the time, and I'm always trying to get in a "flow" of something outside myself.

November 6. Some lighter stuff for the weekend. Can You Tell a Trump Fridge From a Biden Fridge? It's photos of the insides of refrigerators, and it's surprisingly hard to tell. Overall people are right only 52% of the time. So we're less different than we thought.

And some music. This Spotify playlist, Radio First Termer 69 FM, is an actual playlist from an underground DJ in the Vietnam war.

Dolly Parton's Jolene, slowed down, sounds way better than original speed.

And a nice video of a beautiful, spiritual song from 2010, Roky Erickson - Forever.

November 5. Some good news from the election. We've all heard about Oregon decriminalizing hard drugs, and also, Massachusetts has passed a strong right to repair law, opening up high-tech car data.

But the big surprise is that Republicans are doing better than Trump. He's hanging by a thread, while they picked up a bunch of seats in the House. We've been told that he's carrying the party on his back, that they'll fall apart without him, but it turns out, if they didn't have such a flawed candidate, they would have kicked Biden's ass.

Why are Republicans doing so well? Partly it's because the cultural left has gone too far. I heard about an academic speech code where "grandfathered in" was declared ageist. But I want to focus on the economic right and left, and I'm not claiming any timeless definition of "right" and "left", just looking at what they mean here and now.

This is America, so both sides will say they stand for freedom, but neither does. The right wants you to be forced to serve the more powerful, and the left wants you to be forced to help the less fortunate. Both sides will claim morality, but really it's about personal preference. Do you feel better about serving the powerful, or helping the weak?

Or, to be truly free, in a left wing society you have to be at the bottom, and in a right wing society you have to be at the top. Which of those do you aspire to? Or which do you think is more realistic?

I've been thinking about John Rawls, probably the most influential social philosopher of the late 20th century. His big idea is that a society should be judged by the quality of life of its worst-off member. If the left is failing, it's because their idea of minimum quality of life is about industrial comforts, rather than feeling alive. Quoting Vachel Lindsay, from 1909:

Let us enter the great offices and shut the desk lids and cut the telephone wires. Let us see that the skyscrapers are empty and locked, and the keys thrown into the river. Let us break up the cities. Let us send men on a great migration: set free, purged of the commerce-made manners and fat prosperity of America; ragged with the beggar's pride, starving with the crusader's fervor. Better to die of plague on the highroad seeing the angels, than live on iron streets playing checkers with dollars ever and ever.

Election day, 2020. First, adding some detail to yesterday's post, here's a post I made in 2009 about property, against the concept of non-occupying ownership, and suggesting a distinction between sustaining and extractive ownership.

Eric comments:

My current reading of 'Right' vs. 'Left' is that both serve the primacy of property, but the Right sees no reason to restrain coercive hoarding, while the Left has some notion that ownership quantities should not exceed some arbitrary ratio. No wonder the Right is more effective -- they are following their undiluted core principle, while the Left holds most of the same principles, but just wants to restrain them a little.

I agree... and yet, why should we even care if one political faction is following core principles more purely than another?

Our whole culture has fallen into a bad head-space about public policy, and it happened through two mistakes. First, the mechanisms of the state have been turned into a performance, a show, which we call "politics". Second, we look to that show to give meaning to our lives.

Put them together, and the actions of the state now follow the rules of myth-making, instead of following the practical interests of the people. That's why rural Americans enthusiastically support a TV host who reflects their culture back at them, while cancellation of farm debts is not even on the radar.

That's why social thinkers who should know better, like me and David Graeber, have critiqued the Democratic party for not having a compelling vision. I've deleted yesterday's final paragraph, because I don't want politicians to be for anything that's dumb enough to be inspiring on television.

The duty of politicians is to boringly arrange the mechanisms of the state to serve individuals and small groups pursuing their own peculiar visions. Mass media has made that impossible. Enjoy your civil war, America.

November 2. Posted last week to Weird Collapse, a poorly written and important article, Can too many brainy people be a dangerous thing? There are actually two things going on here. The first is that too many people are being trained in head skills, for sitting in offices manipulating abstractions, when we need more hand skills, for repairing the infrastructure, and emotional skills, for service jobs and de-escalating conflict.

Everyone knows we never use the algebra and geometry that we have to learn in school. I wish I could have taken a class in horticulture, or plumbing, or reading microexpressions. The closest thing schools have, to formal instruction in social intelligence, is sensitivity training based around left wing identity politics. It's a good start. But racism is a subset of classism, treating different categories of people better or worse, and I've never heard of anti-classist training.

That brings us to the second thing the article is about: too many people are being raised to feel entitled to have power over others. And that's something that happens in families. I remember in high school I wanted to take wood shop, because I really liked lathe working in middle school, and my dad made a rare intervention, and said I had to take electronics, because wood shop was low class.

My generation was the first in American history to be poorer than our parents -- and since then every generation has been poorer by a wider margin. But at the leading edge of that decline, I just assumed that because I was "smart" (good at manipulating abstractions), one day I'd be rich. That's why, at age 20, I was a standard evil libertarian. Then when I figured out I was going to be poor, I changed my politics to favor reforms that would make poverty tolerable.

But some people don't. When they see themselves slipping in status, they can't imagine a world where it's okay to be at the bottom; instead, they want to make sure there's always someone below them who they can drop power on. If a bigger monkey can hit me, I should be allowed to hit a smaller monkey. And that's why the political right surges in failing economies.

On a tangent, I wonder what the "right" would be like if they could finally let go of domination. If they quit glorifying "property" as a way to preserve and extract wealth, if they quit defining wealth as a way to make other people do stuff they'd prefer not to do, if they didn't think wearing a uniform should give a person more right to use deadly force, what would be left of the right? Mostly stuff I agree with, like favoring the informal over the formal, and fun over safety. I always say my most right wing opinion is that they should bring back lawn darts.

October 30. Tying up this week's subject, from the Weird Collapse subreddit, The Possibility of Life Without Money, a smart essay about the benefits of making more things free at point of use, like we already do with public restrooms (in the USA) and health care (outside the USA). Related: a classic essay on The Economics of Star Trek.

And Matt comments on informal camping:

One high-profile amenity, already in existence, are the showers for homeless people in Vatican City. If we took that concept to the borders of civilization, then we'd have public waystations with free showers and water -- and maybe even food and internet -- at remote locations, allowing people to backpack for a couple weeks and then return and go out again. Allowing this, on say BLM land, would create more jobs: we'd need more rangers.

I know some people who work for the BLM or NPS who already do spend half the year backpacking and river-running around. If the BLM created more infrastructure, and allowed more camping, while observing Leave No Trace rules or something close, I think we'd see an explosion of nomadic communities across the Southwest. I don't even think they'd have to change their 14-day camping rule. With a little forethought, and more rangers, you could loosely organize movement through those areas to minimize impact. (The biggest way they could minimize impact, I think, is by installing a series of composting toilets and outlawing ATVs except in "sacrifice areas.")

If we accede to homelessness and camping on private/public land, then instead of enabling wood burning we could invest in safe, distributed infrastructure for heating. Like, imagine a sprinkling of passive solar heaters across the high desert. When you're ready to camp for the night, in winter, you set up your tent by one and run an air hose to your tent. I mean, I love open fires, but it's fun to think about low-tech, ecologically friendly infrastructure spread across the wilderness. Plus, the very existence of the infrastructure would be an affirmation that it's your right to be there and that someone cares about you even if they choose to live in cities a hundred miles away.

October 28. Continuing from Monday, a reader comments:

It is helpful for me to think about the Communalist concept of the Irreducible Minimum instead of trying to puzzle out a means of economic equality. Simply put, the Irreducible Minimum is comprised of the basic human necessities that a good society should guarantee every member.

Right now, in a money-based society without guaranteed necessities, people with not enough money have to obey people and institutions with excess money. If necessities were guaranteed, workers could to say no to employers a lot more easily. It would be like universal "fuck you money", without the money. Economic inequality would no longer be a problem of justice, only convenience. The whole money economy could no longer prey on desperation, but would have to feed itself on the desire for luxury and status -- which would still make quite a large economy.

So, what stuff exactly would be guaranteed, and how? Right now both questions are hypothetical, and the second is more interesting. For every necessity, from water to health care, I see a spectrum from socialism, which is easy to imagine, to anarchism, which is harder.

So, for guaranteed housing, we could all be provided rooms by the state, and they might be nice, or dreary. The angle I'd rather take, would be to change the whole system to elevate homelessness. First, an absolute right to public sleeping. Second, the right to cross public or private land and camp on it -- and with that right, the obligation to respect the local people and ecology. Third, dedicated parking lots for living in vehicles, next to permanent fairgrounds for rent-free commerce. Fourth, no one may be discriminated against for not having an address.

We have the technology right now to make addresses obsolete: drones that can make deliveries to GPS locations. What if that became cheap and normal? Related: Ghost roads of robot workhorses will power cities through the shocks of the 21st century.

And linked from the subreddit, The Last True Hermit is a nice video interview of Michael Finkel, the journalist who covered Christopher Knight, who lived in the woods of Maine for 27 years. Knight was awesome in every way, except that he had to steal a lot of food to survive. If drones could bring food to his camp, then he could survive without stealing, on much less money than what's been suggested for a basic income.

So with a modest basic income, the legalization of informal camping, and drone delivery, it would be a realistic lifestyle choice to be a hermit -- or a nomad.

October 26. I've been thinking about the goal of economic equality, and what that could even mean. Surely it doesn't mean everyone has the same income and assets. The normal answer is equality of opportunity -- but opportunity to do what? To get a position doing something you would not do for free, just because you need the money to not be homeless? Or the opportunity to hire other people who need money, pay them less than their labor is worth, and build power over others on the difference? That's not something everyone should have a right to do -- it's something no one should do.

The only definition I can think of, where "economic equality" is a good thing, is social equality in the realm of economics. Social equality means that no one has power over anyone else, so economic equality means no one has power over anyone else through money. But that's basically what money is for. So economic equality is better framed as freedom from money: in an economically just society, any given person can realistically live a good life without money.

That's already been done, many times and many ways, before money. I'm not imagining a world after money, but a world where money has diminished to a mini-game, like casino chips are now.

It's a long way off, but every time a paid task is automated or done by volunteers, and every time a necessity that formerly cost money is made free, we get closer to it. Meanwhile, what's unrealistic is preserving a system where our daily tasks are driven by external reward and punishment, and not by what we enjoy doing.

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 / August / October