Ran Prieur

"If observing outer space gives us a view of the past, observing inner space would surely give us a glimpse into the future."

-Ken M


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February 22. Last week, Weird Collapse linked to this Hacker News comment thread about vertical farming, about this post on Low Tech Magazine, Vertical Farming Does Not Save Space, because the solar panels to power it take up more space than a regular farm.

The techies say, it does save space, because you can use nuclear power, or solar panels out in a desert. Then there are arguments against those arguments, and so on. The angle I want to take is probably not mentioned in the thread: technological complexity, and the challenges it raises for human motivation.

I continue to think that motivation is the number one factor in collapse. A society collapses when not enough people feel like doing the stuff that holds it together, and too many people feel like doing stuff that breaks it down.

Vertical farming presents itself as a cure for malaise. You're not excited about growing food in a stinky old field? How about growing food in a shiny new building? Okay, but who's excited about pouring the foundation for that building? Mining and processing the materials that make the cement for the foundation? Digging the hole? Or doing all the tedious work that leads to a machine that can dig the hole for you? And we haven't even started the building yet.

My point is, technological complexity tends to create tasks that no one feels like doing, and the people who get excited about tech are insulated from those tasks. This actually goes back to the subject of elite overproduction. Too many people see themselves as the designers and beneficiaries of amazing new technologies, and not enough people are willing to do the increasingly fiddly grunt work.

Now, low tech doesn't magically create utopia. But look at it from another angle. Your task is to design a society where nobody is ever forced to do anything. Are you going to go high tech, or low tech? There have been societies where nobody is ever forced to do anything, and all of them so far have been technologically simple.

For growing food, the most motivationally robust system is a semi-wild food forest, all perennials and self-seeding annuals, powered by a fusion plant called the sun. There's a lot of room for highly motivated people to make this system work better, but there's also a lot of room for idleness.

February 18. I've got nothing this week, so I'll dig into the archives for a couple reposts. This is a condensed excerpt of an essay written by mathematician Norbert Wiener, in 1949, about the coming machine age:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.
Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists. There is general agreement among the sages of the peoples of the past ages, that if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently.

Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

And a post I made on January 28, 2015:

Fascinating technology article, I paid $25 for an Invisible Boyfriend, and I think I might be in love. For a monthly fee, a company will pay nameless freelance workers to send you texts pretending to be your boyfriend. Supposedly the purpose is to fool your friends and family, but the article points out how easy it is for people to use this service to feel loved.

This is oddly similar to the previous subject of travelers encountering friendly natives. Wealth inequality creates unreal relationships, in which poorer people do not present themselves according to their own perspectives and their own needs, but according to the expectations of richer people. In one sense the crowdsourced texters and impoverished natives are being exploited, but in another sense they're in the better position, because they're not being made stupid. If the performers and servants are all eventually replaced by AI's and robots, is that progress?

This reminds me of a key insight from the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita: that you can judge your environment by whether it is indifferent to your gaze, like nature, or designed around your gaze, like television or a theme park. With continuing advances in artificial intelligence, artificial environments will not just be designed around the gaze of the average person, but each person's particular gaze. We can each have our own Disneyland, and the shared human reality could splinter into billions of tiny echo chambers.

February 15. This blog is like my job, and lately it's been bumped by another job: shoveling snow. So today, more links, starting with a capitalist argument for wealth redistribution: How Poverty Makes Workers Less Productive. Cynically, I think the only reason we still have poverty in this age of abundance, is that it's human nature to want to have someone below you.

Two weeks ago I linked to a piece about urban collapse. This is a longer piece by the same author: How Early Megacities Emerged From the Jungles of Cambodia. It's an excerpt from a book that I'll have to read.

Loosely related to elite overproduction, two reddit threads, one long and one short. At what point did you decide you were never going to be exceptional but that was ok? And from Ask Old People, For those of us who make art, has aging changed you and your work? It's mainly about how much better the creative process is, when you don't care about success.

New model could explain old cholesterol mystery. This is one of my pet subjects. Science has known for decades that eating foods high in cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Also, there is still no evidence that eating saturated fat leads to heart disease. But there is a connection between eating saturated fat and having high cholesterol in your body, and also between high cholesterol in your body and heart disease. How can this happen? The new hypothesis is that both heart disease, and high cholesterol, are symptoms of chronic inflammation.

Finally, one of the great piano players, Chick Corea, just died. One cool thing he did was to improvise musical portraits of people. This is a nice video of that, Chick makes a spontaneous composition for two audience members.

February 11. No ideas, more links. From Ask Old People, What did you used to do as a kid/teenager that you could never get away with these days? Keeping in mind that "right" and "left" are ephemeral cultural terms, I think this is where the recent left has made a big mistake, in conceding this territory to the right. We have a lot of room to make life more fun and dangerous, while still having aggressive recycling of wealth, and legal protections against domination.

This Ask Reddit thread, removed by mods for some dumb reason, is packed with great stories. Have you ever known anyone who has changed from who they were to practically a different person?

I spent most of January working on this project for the Spirit Island board game: 12 presence colors with custom reminder tokens.

Arkadia Zoomquilt is an amazing fractal zoom through trippy landscapes. Zoomquilt 2 is even trippier. The Hacker News comment thread explains how it's done. The code is pretty simple, and the hard part is producing a bunch of hand-drawn images that fit inside each other.

February 8. Stray links, starting with two Reddit threads. From Ask Old People, What is the weirdest experience you've had in your life? And lots of theological discussion in this thread, What if God is actually the devil?

Two medical links. How to make your own vaccine (thanks Ted), and The Doctor Will Sniff You Now, about the promise of using high-tech molecule detectors to diagnose illness.

And two explanations of the recent stock market drama. Posted to Weird Collapse, WallStreetBets and Cryptocurrency: Symptoms of the same societal problem, that problem being too many people whose lives have no meaning.

And a cynical Reddit comment: Wall Street Bets veterans know they're making a suicide charge for the memes, but "they have brought thousands of naive new investors with them - who think that they're going to somehow come out on top, not realizing that they're cannon fodder for the more savvy WSB users to exit with gains."

I can remember when buying stocks was something only rich people did. Middle class people might do it if they had a year's salary sitting in their savings account doing nothing. Now it seems like anyone with an extra thousand dollars is supposed to throw it in the stock market, a giant legal gambling racket where other gamblers are more skilled than you, and the "house" is whoever already has the most money.

February 5. I was planning to take today off, but I just got two consecutive emails about Cory Doctorow, so I'm going to follow that synchronicity. Alex sends this new blog post by Doctorow, Organic fascism, about the overlap between back-to-the-landers and far-right crazies. I think what's going on here is that people like to tell simple and beautiful stories about the world they live in. And once you get in that box, it's hard to get out, because it's painful to accept perspectives that make your mental models complicated and ugly.

It's funny that right wingers hate Hollywood, because no one has done more than Hollywood to feed the good vs evil bullshit that they've bought into. I saw a video of that horned hat guy from the Capitol riots (who went on a hunger strike in jail because they wouldn't give him organic food) shouting "freeeedooommm" in a clear imitation of the movie Braveheart.

I admit that I'm a little envious. Everyone is making fun of Marjorie Taylor Greene for saying that California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. But it would be more fun to live in that world than this one, where wildfires are caused by climate change, the bureaucratic difficulty of controlled burns, and decaying electrical infrastructure.

Doctorow 2: Matt sends a quote from his novel Walkaway:

You weren't supposed to need to be a special snowflake, because the objective reality was that, important as you were to yourself and the people immediately around you, it was unlikely that anything you did was irreplaceable. As soon as you classed yourself as a special snowflake, you headed for the self-delusional belief that you should have more than everyone else, because your snowflakiness demanded it.

I've always liked the snowflake metaphor. To me it means that every person, like every snowflake, is unique and special in their own way. Think of Mr. Rogers. He would say that each person is special, but he would never say that that means you should have more than other people. You could argue that if everyone is special then no one is, but I would say, because everyone is special, being special doesn't make anyone better.

I think that fallacious flip, from unique to better, comes from our quantitative culture. In a qualitative culture no one would even think of it. Matt comments: "There's a vertical idea of special and a horizontal idea of special, and they don't jive with each other."

It also occurs to me that being replaceable is something that happens in the workplaces of a machine-like economy, after we've passed through an education system designed to turn us into replaceable cogs. But if you're doing creative work, you don't have to go far in any direction before you're doing something that no one else has done.

Some creative work for the weekend, a nice ambient album, imbolc by emily.

February 4. Off the usual subjects, today I want to write about role models. With the Superbowl coming up, I really don't like Tom Brady. And when another person bothers you that much, it's usually because they're reflecting something inside you that you need to come to terms with. Brady always says that he couldn't have done it without his coaches and teammates. But the myth of Tom Brady is the legendary individual, not a cooperator but a competitor, whose will to win is so intense that he can carry any team of losers on his back to a championship.

My counterpoint to Tom Brady is a 90's NBA player named Derrick McKey. Supremely talented, on the court he appeared to be lazy, and he never put up big numbers. But his teammates loved him. They said he took care of the little things that made the whole team better. His lack of quantifiable production eventually led the Sonics to trade him to the Pacers. Immediately, the Pacers won twelve straight games, including a playoff sweep on the way to the eastern conference finals. Meanwhile the Sonics lost in the first round for two straight years.

So I can't defeat Tom Brady, but I can defeat my inner Tom Brady, by aiming for subtle helpful actions instead of obvious personal achievements.

Another example. I love the Great British Baking Show, and in one early season (spoilers follow) the three finalists were Brendan, James, and John. Brendan was like the Dalai Lama meets Hannibal Lecter: serene, precise, deliberate, and extremely competent. James was the opposite: wild and sunny, a master improviser who would always try crazy stuff and still bring in a good result.

The third finalist, John, was an average baker who could only motivate himself through mopey self-criticism. Week after week, he barely squeaked by, and even in the final, he was no better than Brendan. But the judges, like the writers of the disastrous Game of Thrones finale, admired his story and declared him the winner. (Years later, he would admit that he regretted winning because it derailed his life.)

Again, this bothers me because I still have an inner John, who I can eliminate by not doing what he would do, and instead doing what either Brendan or James would do.

Personality is made of actions, and small actions are more important than big actions, because there are more of them. If you want to be a different kind of person, just do what that person would do, in the smallest way, right now.

February 1. I got a lot of feedback from the last post, but all my ideas for a follow-up are half-baked. So today, some negative links.

The Paradox of Abundance is that abundance is only good for a small number of people who know how to manage it. The author starts with the example of food, where health-conscious people pick out the best food, while most people are drawn to the cheapest and best tasting food, which is bad for them. And the same kind of thing is happening with information.

The downside of clean: Scientists fear pandemic's 'hyper hygiene' could have long-term health impacts. I read somewhere that when kids in the slums of India got polio, it was only a mild sickness, because their immune systems were so strong from exposure to other microbes. Personally, I eat food off the floor, and walk barefoot outside whenever I can.

Moving on to mental health, a good thread on the psychonaut subreddit, There's a parasite inside of you feeding off negative thoughts and emotions.

And a smart article, The Seductive Appeal of Urban Catastrophe. It's mostly about the iconic ruined city of Angkor. We used to think that when the city was sacked in 1431, everyone suddenly left. Newer archaeology suggests that it was mainly the royal family who left, while nonroyals "continued to live at Angkor, repaired its ailing water infrastructure, recycled stones from temples into new structures, and planted farms where high-density housing once was."

The actual decline had already started, and would continue for a long time. The cause was that "leaders bungled maintenance of the city's water system in response to climate threats." Applying this to our own time, I continue to think that collapse will be highly local. The places that do the best job maintaining and retrofitting their infrastructure will thrive, and the places that do the worst job will be abandoned.

January 28. I've been thinking more about elite overproduction, which I last wrote about on November 2. This has probably happened in every declining society in history: there are more people raised to feel entitled to something, than the number of people who can actually have it.

I want to break these things up into three categories. First is luxuries, like having a big house and a nice car. Second is livelihood, spending your time doing stuff you like, while depending on other people doing stuff they don't like. Third is status.

My definition of status is narrow and negative. Status is a mental illness, in which human value is framed in a zero-sum context; so you can't be a better person unless one or more other people are less good. A person afflicted with status is happier if they have a Lexus and everyone else has a Ford, than if everyone else also has a Lexus. This is part of human nature, but that's no excuse for not overcoming it.

The cure for status is to practice valuing yourself and your life in absolute terms, instead of relative to other people. This is a good time to practice that. The cure for loss of luxuries is similar: valuing what you have in absolute terms, or relative to your basic needs, instead of relative to what you thought you'd have.

Livelihood is the one that worries me, because so many of the tasks necessary to keep this society going, are so unenjoyable, that it's not realistic to value them, except as a means to luxury and status that you're not going to get. This is especially true if you don't value keeping this society going. That's why I continue to think that the main factor in the present collapse is scarcity of human motivation -- or the transfer of human motivation, away from acts of creation and preservation, and toward acts of destruction.

January 25. Some links about the world getting better. This thread from Ask Old People has a lot of stuff about how much worse it was not so long ago: If I (age 26) were suddenly transported back to the 1950s or 60s and pretended to fit in, what would I probably not think to account for?

From sixthtone.com, two articles about China: In China's New Age Communes, Burned-Out Millennials Go Back to Nature. And The Hermit Culture Living On in China's Misty Mountains.

Back to America, The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone. The article is not about those people, but about retrofitting the suburbs, so instead of a sprawl of giant houses, there are dense walkable neighborhoods, with lots of one and two person dwellings, and old box stores turned into community centers.

This is an easy prediction: suburbs that make these changes will attract people who want to live there. Suburbs that don't will be abandoned, if they haven't been already. As birth rates fall, animals prowl in abandoned 'ghost villages'.

On that note, I want to recommend three works of fiction, all whimsical visions of post-collapse utopias, that I like to think are roughly where we're headed. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, Engine Summer by John Crowley, and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Hitoshi Ashinano.

I also just finished the book A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet. It's about a group of kids and teenagers, who are brought to a summer house rental by a group of decaying Gen X parents, and then there's a climate catastrophe, which the kids deal with better.

January 22. Stray links. An Engineering Argument for Basic Income:

We have engineered a life support system without fault tolerance, and we did it because engineers didn't design the system. Politicians did. Special interests did. And it's built on antiquated job-centric moralism instead of contemporary life-centric realism.

Being a nerd is the key to happiness:

For example, I started hiking recently, and I've also been trying to learn about the plant life around my area. Knowing what plants are as I pass them, knowing the specific mountain ranges in my area, and all of those details make the experience so much more interesting and enriching for me.

Why are the Pleiades called the seven sisters, when we can only see six? Astronomers Say Global Myths About 'Seven Sisters' Stars May Reach Back 100,000 Years.

paint.wtf is a website where people make illustrations, usually bad ones, which are then judged by an AI.

And some music, a brand new song by Origami Conspiracy, Nothing to Me. I love the backing vocals.

January 20. I admit, when I turned on the TV this morning, I was hoping to see cities in flames, not Jennifer Lopez doing some bullshit song. I understand why Trumpers are frustrated with the sterile and disingenuous status quo, it's just that what they're offering is much worse.

But enough about what I'm against. On this day of symbolic new beginnings, I want to lay out my own vision for the future.

In the short term, an unconditional basic income. It's not going to bring utopia, but it's the next thing we have to try, and then we'll see where it goes. It's important to not frame the UBI as a way to make mechanization tolerable, but as a way to give workers leverage to improve work environments. Imagine, instead of us having to compete for jobs, if jobs had to compete for us.

Also in the short term, legalization of psychedelics. Some people will fry their brains, but overall, psychedelics will loosen our minds, raise ecological consciousness, and drive the biggest reinvention of religion in thousands of years.

In the medium term, the UBI could feed new tribes, people with similar interests who pool their incomes for efficiency of scale. Ideally, thousands of local workshops will build a new foundation for technology and the economy, as the old one falls apart.

The best thing we can do with biotech is to make food production cheaper and less harmful, like replacing factory farmed meat with vat-grown protein. Social unrest is strongly correlated with food costs, and what we've seen so far in this decade is nothing compared to what we'll see if people are going hungry.

In the long term, never mind Mars, let's re-terraform Earth. There has never been a repressive society where people could easily live off the land. Let's take the carbon out of the air, and build the blackest topsoil and the thickest biomass that this planet has ever seen. Make every stream drinkable and every forest edible, so that nobody ever has to do anything useful, and we can just lie in the grass and eat fruit until the sun burns out.

The reason that's unlikely to happen, is that ordinary humans would get bored. But maybe that's something we can overcome. I like to think that this world is a prison for busy people, and if I can be sufficiently chill, they'll let me out.

January 18. I saw a video from the Capitol invasion, where two guys found some pages on the desk of some politician, and they were looking through them for something incriminating. Maybe they were hoping for a page that said, "Secret pedophile location, for eyes of Democrats and billionaires only." But probably, every document in the chamber was totally boring, and also available in the public record, which no one looks at because it's so boring.

The energy now threatening America, comes from people whose attention has been drawn by the media to a world that should be boring, and they want it to be entertaining. I suggest a rule: The more interesting the world of politics, the less it serves the citizens.

This article blows my mind. The far-right propaganda machine doesn't know what to do with Ashli Babbitt. She was the woman on the front lines inside the Capitol, who was killed by police. Obviously they should make her a martyr who will inspire others to risk their lives for the cause. Instead, and maybe the article is exaggerating how many people are this daft, but they're saying her death was faked, or she was an agent for Antifa.

I'm trying to puzzle out the mental gears, of which the minds in question are not consciously aware, that would make someone believe that, and I think it goes back to last week's subject of transitive morality. There's probably already a clinical term for this mental illness. It's where you declare something bad, and then everything it touches is bad, and everything those things touch, until it comes around to you. So: death at protest bad, protest bad, movement bad, me bad. Or it might be: if she's good, then police are bad, but then I agree with BLM, who are bad, so I'm bad.

I think the actual false flag operation, is the idea that Ashli Babbitt's death was a false flag operation. That's how you tear a movement apart, by making people mistrust their allies. So I'm wondering, why is it so easy with these people?

Picking up another loose end from last week, and I still don't have an answer. When Q says "follow the Y," players assume that people flashing Y symbols are bad, when it would actually make more sense, given the word "follow", to think that people flashing Y symbols are good. I understand that the whole context of QAnon is paranoia. But that's still a choice people have made, and why have they made it? When they use their left brains to pick out details, like a bird picking out seeds, why are they looking for poison, and not food?

After drafting the above, I looked outside and saw a crescent moon with the tips pointed upward. I said to Leigh Ann, "It's a horned moon." She said, "Maybe it's a basket."

Spirit Island cards: Impersonate Authority and Incite the Mob

January 13. I'm ready to comment on the storming of the Capitol. It's important to keep in mind that the rioters are not monolithic. That mob, and the bigger mobs to come, contain all kinds of motivations and mindsets. Some of them want to exterminate Jews and some of them just want to fight the police.

I distinctly remember a mythic image, a blurry pic of a scruffy guy with a trickster smile, raising a stick or something, leaning over a podium. Now I can't find it anywhere, and I wonder if my brain constructed the memory, or if I glimpsed fairyland.

Anyway, in a more topically symbolic moment, someone tore down an American flag and replaced it with a Trump flag.

Donald Trump has no creativity, and no awareness of truth and falsehood. I'm defending him. CNN is like, he's making up all these lies to lead his followers astray. No, he's a salesman filling a market. He's practically a bot, testing the feedback from his audience until he's giving them exactly what they want.

Trump is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he's the messiah. We're lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.

This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that's part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.

Matt comments on Monday's post: "I like the term 'manichean tribalism' because it acknowledges there might be inclusive types of tribalism." I'll spell it out:

It is possible to divide the world into us and them, without dividing the world into good and bad. The best example I can think of, is fanbases of different metal bands.

The danger is when a vigorous group-story stacks us-them with good-bad. Because then, attacking the baddies makes you feel alive. To prevent the spread of this emotional pandemic, I suggest two rules of moral distancing:

1) There are no bad people, only bad actions. (I wonder if there aren't even any people, if personality and identity are illusions.)

2) Morality is not transitive. Associating with a doer of bad actions, does not make one a doer of bad actions, let alone a bad person.

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 / December