Ran Prieur

"Do you want your heart to feel like it has been pulled across by a rasp? Then don't look away."

-Serial Experiments Lain


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June 21. Last week I said that social media, for reasons we don't fully understand, is bad for your mental health. In another post, I said that sports become less fun when rules written for human eyes are enforced by machine eyes. Now I'm thinking, those two ideas are the same subject.

Human social behavior has been evolving since we became social animals, before we even became human. Suddenly, our social behavior is being hosted and moderated by something that's not even biological, an alien algorithm not even fully understood by its human coders, with a cold eye that misses nothing and forgets nothing.

On top of that, the whole thing is being managed not for the benefit of humanity, but for the benefit of giant concentrations of money, trying to leverage their money/power into greater money/power by hijacking human attention.

So it's not surprising that people who spend a lot of time in this world are going insane in multiple ways, from anxiety and depression to mass delusion.

Related: The Lindy Effect. It's about people who, I think, are taking a simple idea too seriously in terms of guiding their behavior. But the idea is sound: things that go farther into the past are more likely to go farther into the future. So a play that's been running for five years is more likely to run for another five years, than a play that's been running for a week; and a human behavior that's thousands of years old is more likely to continue than one that's only a few decades old.

Of course, every long-running play has a first week. Some new things are so simple and great that they will still be around in a thousand years, including ball bearings, electric light, and the song "We Will Rock You."

But I think the internet is doomed. Every year it becomes more fragile, as it depends on a more complex technological infrastructure (both hardware and software) that fewer people understand. To knock it down, to the point where it will not fully recover, any of the following things will suffice:

1) Some nation with EMP weapons sees a clear benefit in using them. 2) Our planet takes a direct hit from a major solar flare. 3) There's a popular movement to sabotage fiber optic lines. 4) Through a general malaise or decline, humans are no longer competent to maintain information technology at the current level.

June 18. Off the usual subjects, I've been watching the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, and I want to argue that VAR (video review) is being misused for calling players offside. It happens in a lot of games now, that an exciting goal is called back when a high-tech screenshot reveals that an attacking player had a toenail stuck out farther than the last defender. It makes the game worse for both players and fans, and when the smart commentator points that out, the dumb commentator says, "Well, was he offside?"

My answer is, no, he wasn't. Because if you pull back your bean-counter perspective, and look at the offside rule as a part of a traditional game, then you see that the rule was written for human observers in real time. And a human observer can't see if a player is offside, unless it's by a foot or two. It follows that a player is not offside unless it's by a foot or two. The people who wrote the rule didn't write it that way, because they couldn't imagine machine observers.

More generally, when you change the method of perceiving, you have to change the rule, to prevent dysfunction. How fun would driving be if you got a speeding ticket every time you went 25.01 mph in a 25 zone? Soccer is being ruined in the same way.

So how do we fix it? For now, either VAR should not be used at all for offside, or the officials should have to review it with no slow-mo, no ability to pause the shot or draw a line across the field that no human can see.

In the future, with better tech, it would be cool if every player had a chip implant that buzzed when it was beyond the chip of the last defender, and that same data was used to make the call in real time. Then there would be no stalling of the game, and no reason for arguing.

June 16. A few more happy links. No Lawns is a subreddit about doing things other than lawns with your yard.

From my hometown newspaper, New strain of fungus helps regrow honey bee population.

Trials begin on lozenge that rebuilds tooth enamel.

And The rice of the sea is about a seagrass seed that's edible, surprisingly nutritious, and improves the ecology of places where it's grown.

June 14. Last week the Weird Collapse subreddit had its most upvoted post yet, The kids aren't alright. It's an image of some social media posts about how young people, in addition to their personal psychological problems, are objectively in a world threatened by climate change, economic collapse, and bad politics.

I have two pieces of obvious advice. First, avoid social media. For reasons we don't fully understand yet, it's bad for your mental health. Second, stop following national and international news, because it's almost all bad, and there's nothing you can do about it. A phrase I find helpful, to preserve my sanity, is "Not my circus, not my monkeys." Your actual circus and monkeys are local, and with the big systems hanging between gridlock and authoritarianism, it's in the small systems where good stuff can still happen.

My non-obvious advice is to read a holocaust memoir. Because it's probably not going to get that bad, and if it does, you'll see that people can still deal with it. I think Elie Wiesel's Night is overrated. The Maus comics are good, and my favorites are Speak You Also by Paul Steinberg, and From The Ashes of Sobibor by Thomas Blatt.

Related links: Disenchanted Chinese Youth Join a Mass Movement to 'Lie Flat'. And Upwards of 40% of workers are thinking about quitting their jobs.

On the local angle, The Rise of Remote Work May Reshape College Towns. I live in a college town and it's great. People have to leave because there aren't many jobs. But with remote work, or better yet, an unconditional basic income, the best towns will draw the best people and thrive.

And some grounds for optimism in this thread: What are some small, unnoticed ways we as a society have made social progress in the last two decades?

June 11. Matt comments on Monday's subject:

To me, the most obvious rebuttal to the tragedy of the commons is the roommate who picks up after everybody else. It sucks to be that guy. I've been that guy. But I wasn't going to wash a cup every time I wanted a cup.

The tragedy of the commons assumes no one will care about their surroundings unless they fully own them. It's a weird thing to assume.

It also speaks to a weird sick pattern of possessive people: they express care for others/things in proportion to how much they can control others/things. There's also the weird sick pattern of assigning value only to that which can be controlled.

This reminds me of a Steven Wright line: "I have the world's largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world."

And some music for the weekend. The other day, on weed, I did an experiment, where I put this Seraphim Simulation into this YouTube looper, and play-tested a bunch of psychedelic music to see what made the best combo. The winner: Moon Duo - In The Trees.

June 10. Over on the subreddit, zeroinputagriculture has written a great explanation of why genetic engineering isn't as powerful as we think: Limits of eugenics. Basically, as with drug design, we can't just reverse-engineer any effect we want, even if we can build molecules atom-by-atom. Instead, we have to throw a bunch of molecules at the wall and see what sticks.

Related: an important YouTube video, The Myth of the Objective, about how great stuff is not achieved by aiming exactly at it, but found by accident in the process of seeking novelty.

So I'm thinking, if we get Homo Superior through biotech, it will be a lucky strike on cluster of changes that have synergy, and whatever those changes are, that's what humans will be next.

Down in the comment thread, there's a fascinating discussion about the possibility that one nation will come up with something that gives them a big short-term advantage, like the Nazis got with amphetamines -- or a long-term advantage, like a hack for mental health. From there, the discussion gets pretty weird.

I want to go a different direction, and say that the only enduring solution for mental health is a good society. I won't try to define that right now, but the way to have a good society through brain-hacking, is not to bend people's brains to fit a system that they wouldn't otherwise fit -- it's to bend people's brains to see the way out of a system that doesn't fit them, and into one that does.

June 9. Two tangents from Monday's post. First, on the subject of schooling, this is a great paragraph from a new Paul Graham essay, A Project of One's Own:

It's a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.

And on the subject of eugenics, I've been reminded that the definition of that word is broad enough that it can point to two things with no overlap. First, you can have laws that say people with bad genes aren't allowed to procreate -- but inevitably, the definition of "bad genes" is calculated backwards from whatever makes the people in power uncomfortable.

Second, on a completely voluntary basis, we could use technology to improve the human genome. If biotech keeps progressing, this will turn into a huge issue, maybe the biggest issue of the 22nd century. Because after we fix obvious genetic diseases, like Huntington's, we'll get into stuff where the benefit is less clear. Do we want to eliminate sickle cell anemia, which also gives resistance to malaria? Is autism something to be cured, or a valid way of being human?

I expect trends, where the vat-babies of the 2190's have green eyes and wide noses. Or, if different populations go for radically different looks, it could exacerbate tribalism. (Is there a gene for tribalism?) Humans are short-sighted, especially when we're doing something new, so we're sure to make changes that seem to make humanity better, but end up making it worse.

And it's not like we can just tweak a gene to do whatever we want. Little changes will have cascading effects that we don't expect, so that everyone with the gene for pointy ears gets kidney failure.

Personally, I think DNA is overrated, and it will turn out that a big part of who we are, is neither genetics nor environment, but something we haven't discovered yet. Maybe in the 26th century, the biggest issue will be morphic field generators, or ancestral memory wipes.

June 7. Posted a couple weeks ago to Weird Collapse, The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth. Here's a 2008 article on the same subject, Debunking the 'Tragedy of the Commons', and here's how I've explained it before:

If you go out and look, land held in common tends to be managed well, and privately owned land tends to be exploited. But in 1968 a eugenicist named Garrett Hardin pulled a paper out of his ass that said exactly the opposite with no evidence, and the owning classes thought it was brilliant.

Does it matter that Hardin was a eugenicist? Yes, because it's the same kind of evil thinking. To support control of human breeding, you have to be comfortable that the people who will be doing the controlling, are people like you. So you have to be confident that you are a member of a justifiably power-holding class. Hardin also wrote a paper on "lifeboat ethics," again a thought experiment with no evidence, arguing that it's bad to give money to the poor.

Note that the ecological destruction of the modern era is not an example of the "tragedy of the commons," but the tragedy of central control and private property. Related, from 2007: Iain Boal: Specters of Malthus, a smart interview arguing that population only outruns food supply when there's non-local control of resources.

I should also say, to reduce the human population, we only need two things: easy access to birth control, and some way of supporting old people who don't have kids. If people don't need to have kids for economic reasons, and if women aren't forced to be baby factories, then the birthrate drops to sub-replacement.

More negative links. Amazon Prime Is an Economy-Distorting Lie. Basically, by forcing third-party sellers to keep their prices high, and charging them massive commissions, Amazon subsidizes its free shipping. Without illegal monopoly practices, Amazon's business model falls apart.

A lot of pandemic homeschoolers are not going back. On the same subject, by Rebecca Solnit, Abolish High School.

Finally, The Age of Autonomous Killer Robots May Already Be Here, because last year in Libya a weaponized drone hunted down a human target without being told to. If we want to avoid the normalization of killer robots, we need a law that explicitly denies robots the right of self-defense. So if you try to destroy a drone, the most it can do is take your picture and use it to bring charges for vandalism.

June 3. Right after making Monday's post, I took my annual early summer LSD trip. My supply is low enough that I'm only doing it once a year now, but this time I decided to try a tab and a half. The only difference I noticed was that it came on a lot faster. I've still never hallucinated on any substance -- I see what everyone else sees, but differently.

I should also say, LSD is serious, and the younger you are, the bigger the risk. If you're over fifty, your brain is a rusty old engine, and psychedelics are like whacking it with a pipe to loosen it up. You wouldn't whack a cat with a pipe, and that cat is your sixteen year old brain. And unlike cannabis, LSD can bend your brain so it can't be bent back. Anyway, if you're going to do it, my advice is to stock up on fresh fruit, and go walk around outside.

First I took a walk downtown. I've never liked the metaphor that people are asleep, and should wake up. Metaphors should be based on something that makes sense literally, and literal sleep is wonderful. What I saw on my walk, is that humans are not so much asleep, as we are deeply unalive. I mean, we're getting better. But still, what a delicate balance, to be alive enough to set a good example for others, but not so alive that they kill you.

Then, as I always do, I walked up the river trail out of town. I was reminded of the Wallace Stevens line, "We live in an old chaos of the sun," and the Steven Wright line, "God is a huge amplifier and life is just feedback." Nature is not a temple. Nature is a filthy nectar-dripping riot, and human hedonism is pinched and clunky in comparison.

I don't want to be too ungrateful to be human. We can do a lot of things that no other animal can. We can go deep into our own imaginations and take others along. We can tell stories about the stars. And we can listen to, and create, a huge variety of beautiful sounds.

The next day I went back and filmed a new video. It's for one of Big Blood's trippiest and most challenging songs: Sequins. The structure of the song is nine similar sections of 80 beats, so I took the best bit I filmed, and looped it to sync nine times. So far I haven't used Windows Movie Maker, just Windows Video Editor. The birds are cliff swallows.

June 2. The new Firefox update (89) does at least two things I hate. Here's how to fix them.

When you try to search in the search box on the Firefox home page, it moves your search to the address bar. To keep it in the search box: 1) Type about:config into the address bar, and accept the danger. 2) In the search bar that comes up, type handoff. 3) Double-click "browser.newtabpage.activity-stream.improvesearch.handoffToAwesomebar" to false. "improvesearch"? "Awesomebar"? What is this bullshit?

The other thing is it massively pads my bookmarks. This can't be fixed from about:config. You have to make a userChrome.css file. 1) Find your profile folder using these instructions. 2) Create a userChrome.css file using these instructions. 3) With a text editor (I recommend Notepad++), open your userChrome.css file and copy the code suggested here, but with fewer pixels. I've set all the numbers to 1, and I'm considering 0.

Taking a step back, this is all part of technological collapse. Things that could be simple are made increasingly complex, under the guise of "upgrades", so that engineers can justify their jobs. This complexity makes the practical level of our world less accessible to ordinary users. Stuff that used to be out in the open, is put into black boxes that are hard to get your hands in.

Everything is getting slicker on the surface and more kafkaesque at the core, and we all feel more powerless, and justifiably anxious about things going wrong that we can't fix. When enough things go wrong at once, whole subsystems fall to the highest technological level that people still understand, which might be quite low.

May 31. Wading back into politics, the weirdest thing that's happened recently, was when Caitlyn Jenner, who's running for governor of California, said she didn't vote in the last election -- but then it turned out she was lying and did vote. Why would someone vote, and say they didn't vote?

I think Caitlyn Jenner is nutty enough to be in tune with the zeitgeist, in which voting is now uncool. Voting is for saps. If you really want to make a difference, the cool thing to do is have a violent revolution and install a charismatic leader.

To be fair, voting is really unsatisfying. Until you're in an election that's decided by one vote, your vote has never made a difference. I'm a serious supporter of random ballot voting, where for each candidate or measure, the election is decided by picking a single ballot at random. The best thing about random ballot voting is there's no incentive for tactical voting. So a no-bullshit no-charisma candidate has an actual chance of winning.

It's going to be hundreds of years, or thousands, before humans figure out a good large-scale political system. In the short term, I expect many of our half-assed democracies to be overwhelmed by a tide of authoritarian sentiment.

Something I learned from James C. Scott's book Against The Grain, is that human prehistory was politically very complex, and there were some groups that alternated seasonally between top-down and bottom-up systems. I think that's where the present authoritarian sentiment is coming from. We have something like an ancestral memory, in which, when the system has too much cruft, someone with a strong personality can come in and sweep it away. That probably works pretty well in a group of a hundred people who all know each other. But when it's a hundred million people, you get an insane dictator and piles of dead bodies.

More optimistically, I think populist authoritarianism might just throw a wrench into the big systems, so that local politics become more important. So some regions and towns will be a lot worse than they are now, and some will be better.

May 27. A few notes on the pandemic. Yesterday I got my second dose of Moderna, so I'm fully vaccinated, for now. It's not that I have a huge amount of faith in the medical system, but as I said on the subreddit, it's simple risk analysis. The evidence that COVID-19 is harmful, both short and long term, massively outweighs the evidence that the vaccine is harmful.

Related: a long reddit post where a guy who almost died from COVID tells his story.

I've been on the fence about whether COVID-19 came from nature or a lab, because I'm not a biologist studying the issue, so any opinion I had would have been based on social factors, not scientific. It's better to say nothing than to be right for the wrong reason. But as the social buzz dies down, and the evidence comes in, it's looking more like the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Here's an article making that case, The origin of COVID.

Also on the subject of new diseases, Deadly Fungi Are the Newest Emerging Microbe Threat All Over the World.

I plan to continue posting the best goals from the NWSL. Here's potential rookie of the year Emina Ekic beating three defenders and the goalie with a spectacular curving shot.

May 24. I'm still on vacation from offering my opinion on social issues -- except my opinion that all of these links are good news. Also, notice how many of them are local:

The Psychedelic Revolution Is Coming

Senegal architects ditch concrete for earth

Homeless Oaklanders have built a cob village

When One City Gave People Cash, They Went Out and Got Jobs

Washington State Removes All Barriers to Municipal Broadband

The Number of Cities With Municipal Broadband Has Jumped Over 450% in Two Years

Newark cops, with reform, didn't fire a single shot in 2020

Renton physician cuts health insurance out of the picture

May 20. This week I'm living the dream. It's been years since I've had such large blocks of time with nothing I'm supposed to be doing, and it's wonderful. On top of that, I'm not gaming, and not doing my favorite time-waster, checking Ask Reddit.

Last week I mentioned "hedonic blowback," my own term for something that's been well-studied under other names. It's when you feel bad for no other reason than having recently done something that feels good. I don't get it from most stuff that feels good, but two hours of a great game, like Starsector, is enough to make the whole next day feel bleak and painful. I hope to find a way around this.

After a 12 day break, I'm back on moderated weed. The conventional wisdom about cannabis is that it's bad because it makes you okay with being bored. I was born okay with being bored. When I'm sober (and not gaming) my favorite thing to do is nothing. When I'm high, I'm a workaholic. It's like, if you're an astronomer, and you only have ten hours a week of telescope time, you're going to spend every second of that time looking into space.

But I wonder, am I really seeing things I can't see sober, or is it just that the things I can already see look better? When I think it through, it's some of both, with the greatest benefits in creative ideas, introspection, and listening to highly complex music, and the smallest benefits in watching movies.

So on my sober days, I've been catching up on movies that I know I'll enjoy, but don't really feel like watching. That's how hedonically advanced we are: that cinema, which was considered pure escapism just a hundred years ago, now feels like a chore compared to digital dopamine hammering.

Anyway, for now I just want to report another coincidence. Yesterday I watched two consecutive movies, Prospect and Ms.45, in which a woman saws a man's arm off.

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
2021: February / April