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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July 30. This is a comment I made yesterday in this r/weirdcollapse thread about psychological collapse and online communities going bad:

I was heavily into conspiracy theory in the 90's. There was a great paper magazine, Kenn Thomas's Steamshovel Press, that always had thoughtful and well-researched articles exploring anomalies in the dominant narrative.

Another magazine, Jim Martin's Flatland, was more dark and paranoid but still really smart. A more popular magazine, Paranoia, was stupid but fun.

At some point, conspiracy culture shifted to grand narratives about absolute evil. This happened at the same time that superhero movies (along with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) took over Hollywood. The more epic and the more black-and-white the story, the more humans are drawn to it.

This is my half-baked theory: It used to be that ordinary people would accept whatever the TV said -- or before that, the church. Only a few weirdos developed the skill of looking at a broad swath of potential facts, and drawing their own pictures.

It's like seeing shapes in the clouds. It's not just something you do or don't do -- it's a skill you can develop, to see more shapes more easily. And now everyone is learning it.

Through the magic of the internet, everyone is discovering that they can make reality look like whatever they want. They feel like they're finding truth, when really they're veering off into madness.

SamuraiBeanDog replies:

Except that the real issue with the current conspiracy crisis is that people are just replacing the old TV and church sources with social media and YouTube. The masses of conspiracy culture aren't coming up with their own realities, they're just believing whatever shit they're told by conspiracy influencers.

Something that's rarely said about influencers, and propaganda in general, is that they can't change anyone's mind -- they have to work with what people already feel good about believing. This is a great essay from last year, on the mechanics of internet-aided mass delusion: A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon

July 29. Quick supplement to yesterday's post. Aaron sends this pdf article by Peter Gray, How Children Coped in the First Months of the Pandemic Lockdown.

In theory, there are several reasons for thinking that children's mental health might improve, at least temporarily, as a result of the pandemic lockdown. These include a reduction in the stress of school; increased time to play and in other ways pursue their own interests; and increased time with parents, who themselves may have more time and motivation to interact with and support their children emotionally than they had before.

July 28. Negative links! From 2017, EU withheld a study that shows piracy doesn't hurt sales. "Reda observes that the EU has been trying to force ISPs to install filters that spy on all user-uploaded content, and may have hoped the study would justify such heavy-handed enforcement."

Why do recipe writers lie about how long it takes to caramelize onions? It takes 45 minutes, but they always say it takes 10 minutes, because "Telling the truth about caramelized onions would turn a lot of dinner-in-half-an-hour recipes into dinner-in-a-little-over-an-hour recipes." Then, in this time-tight and money-tight society, recipe writers couldn't get published. This is another example of people lying, not because they're malicious, but because of a social context in which they'll get in trouble for being honest.

When Buddhism Goes Bad. I wrote about this back in March, in three posts beginning here. The word "meditation" points to a lot of things, and some of the most popular practices can be seriously harmful in excess. The line between benefit and danger seems to be around 30 minutes a day.

Schools opened, suicide attempts in girls skyrocketed. Heavily couched in disclaimers, this is the key sentence: "Could it be that the pressures around school itself are among the most important stressors related to suicidality among teens?"

Also not surprising: Get ready for many more record-shattering heatwaves.

Finally, this reddit comment by CurlSagan is the most cynical prediction I've ever seen:

Rather than build apartments, developers will build 15 story parking structures. Each parking spot will come with power so you can live in your shitty electric van or a conex box tiny house.

This will become the new, modern variation of trailer parks. The parking spots will still cost 2/3rds of your income. If your van doesn't have a toilet and shower, there's a public toilet and shower on level 1 that costs $10 per 15 minutes. Everyone who lives in these places will work 6 gig economy jobs and have a master's degree.

July 26. I just spent several days hanging out with extended family. It was about an even mix of red tribe and blue tribe, and I was surprised at how easy it was to avoid the subjects that would cause conflict. Of all the things we might have talked about, the stuff we couldn't talk about was maybe 1%.

And yet, both CNN and Fox News talk about those subjects at least half the time, and some media are pushing 100%. This is something everyone knows, but I can see it more clearly now: our sources of information, in order to get views and ad revenue, are going out of their way to stir up conflict.

New subject: an excellent scientific article on the obesity epidemic. The authors present the problem as a set of mysteries: why did obesity take off around 1980? Why does it not happen to hunter-gatherers, even when they eat diets really high in fat or sugar? Why is it related to altitude? Why are lab animals getting fatter? This bit is fascinating:

It used to be that if researchers needed obese rats for a study, they would just add fat to normal rodent chow. But it turns out that it takes a long time for rats to become obese on this diet. A breakthrough occurred one day when a graduate student happened to put a rat onto a bench where another student had left a half-finished bowl of Froot Loops. Rats are usually cautious around new foods, but in this case the rat wandered over and began scarfing down the brightly-colored cereal.

The graduate student was inspired to try putting the rats on a diet of "palatable supermarket food".... Sure enough, on this diet the rats gained weight at unprecedented speed.... When you give a rat a high-fat diet, it eats the right amount and then stops eating, and maintains a healthy weight. But when you give a rat the "cafeteria" diet, it just keeps eating, and quickly becomes overweight. Something is making them eat more.

The authors argue that some environmental contaminant is throwing off our lipostat, our inner sense of how much to eat to maintain a healthy weight. The reason highly processed foods cause obesity, is not because of their nutritional profile, but because the more processed a food is, the more chance there is for the contaminant to get in. That's also why obesity is correlated with low altitude: "Environmental contaminants build up as water flows downhill and are in much higher concentrations as you approach sea level."

Conclusion: the most likely contaminant is either a class of chemicals called PFAS, or lithium.

July 21. For the next five days I'll be busy with family stuff, so I'll leave you with three links that are challenging but not controversial. Thanks Gabriel for this long reddit comment about other cultures being less serious than anthropologists imagine.

I experienced several incidents of this kind which, I must now admit, I left out of my books on Yukaghir animism, as they posed a real danger to my theoretical agenda of taking indigenous animism seriously. One time, for example, an old hunting leader was making an offering to his helping-spirit, which is customary before an upcoming hunt. However, while throwing tobacco, tea, and vodka into the fire, he shouted, "Give me prey, you bitch!" Everyone present doubled up with laugher.

More anthropology: Rethinking cities, from the ground up. The article is hard to summarize, but the basic idea is that ancient hunter-gatherers were not that different from us, in terms of their social connections. There were extended families, who also belonged to diffuse large groups that shared a cultural identity.

It is not the case that small societies became large societies, which led to more conflict. Both scales were always there, and conflict was always possible. A lot of early cities were peaceful and egalitarian. This leaves us with a hard question: why are recent large systems so repressive? The good news is, it's not because they're large.

More urbanism: How to Build a Small Town in Texas. This is a careful and ambitious thought experiment about designing a town for 3000 people, on 82 acres (33 hectares), that is not dependent on the grid, has no cars within city limits, and is nice to live in.

July 19. Greg has an interesting comment on the last post: that after dismissing the connection between hard work and success, I posted links to three people who did exceptional things through a huge amount of activity.

The problem here is language. "Success" can mean many things, including status in a hierarchy, whether or not you've earned it, and being really good at something really difficult, whether or not anyone cares.

And "hard work" can mean many things, including forcing yourself do something you don't enjoy, so you can achieve some goal, and enjoying something so much that you can't help putting thousands of hours into it.

The former, I call the grind; the latter, I call obsession. When people do difficult things, and they credit "hard work," we assume they mean the grind, and they don't mind that assumption, because obsession is uncool. If you're obsessed with something that society considers useless, you're a weirdo; if you're obsessed with something that society considers valuable, you're a workaholic.

When people talk about "passion," they mean obsession without the negatives, which doesn't exist. I'm in favor of obsession, but we need to acknowledge the negatives. With the grind, the challenge is to get yourself to do this shit. With obsession, the challenge is to keep the thing you're doing in balance with the rest of your life.

July 16. Yesterday I had a highly upvoted reddit comment. Anwering the question, "What is the biggest lie you've been told by society?" I said, "That success comes from being smart or hard-working. It comes from some combination of luck, social intelligence, and tolerance for lying."

Of course, as one of the replies points out, "success" isn't even a good thing to aim for. As American culture defines that word, it means wealth and status in an economic domination system. As long as we all need money to live an adequate life, money is a tool of power-over, a way to make other people do things they would not do, if they didn't need the money.

One of those things is to validate the world-view of the people above you. As another reply points out, tolerance for lying includes "a willingness to lie for the benefit of people who hold power over you at the expense of yourself."

The popular myth of "lying" is, "I, who am evil, shall say something I know to be false, for my own advantage, ha ha." The reality is more like, "Oh shit, if I don't tell these people what they want to hear, I'll be in so much trouble." And then, "So I don't have to keep track of two things at once, I'll just tell myself the same thing I'm telling them."

Now, through the miracle of social media, the universe of tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear has expanded to include all of us -- as cringing slaves, crafting our profiles to preserve our delicate status, and also as corrupt dictators, who can always find a voice confirming our comfortable beliefs.

New subject: three cool DIY links. Dozens of shattered failures behind me, I have finally succeeded in forging a nearly indestructible knife.

Inventor harvests methane gas from ditches and ponds to power his moped.

And the Alexander piano, about a teenager who wanted to hear a piano with super-long strings, so he built one.

July 14. After some feedback, I want to take another shot at the Covid vax.

I don't get the flu vaccine, because I've had the flu before, and I know from personal experience that my immune system can deal with it.

People who think Covid-19 is no worse than the flu, have chosen that belief for deeper reasons that they should examine. Covid-19 is probably an escaped bioweapon, something totally new, and you can guess your risk with statistics, but in the end, you don't know what it's going to do to you.

If I were to make an argument against getting the vaccine, it would be this: Everyone, eventually, will be exposed to the virus. So that's one unknown thing in your body. While the vaccine has been proven to protect you from the virus, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a new technique, based on mRNA, with no large-scale long-term testing. So if you get it, now you're dealing with two unknowns, instead of one.

Personally, without perfect knowledge, I've made the call that mRNA biotech is a promising medical innovation, and certainly not an evil plot. If it's harmful, that harm is probably in the future overuse of mRNA, when people are shooting it up for less and less of a good reason.

July 12. A few links on Covid-19. From No Tech Magazine, Number of Hospital Beds per 1,000 Inhabitants (1960-2018). It's going down almost everywhere, making medical systems weaker against the next pandemic.

A scientific article, Brain imaging before and after COVID-19:

We identified significant effects of COVID-19 in the brain with a loss of grey matter in the left parahippocampal gyrus, the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex and the left insula. When looking over the entire cortical surface, these results extended to the anterior cingulate cortex, supramarginal gyrus and temporal pole.

And 99.2 Percent of All U.S. Covid Deaths Are Unvaccinated. I don't like the way the blue tribe media has been framing this: "Those poor deluded red-tribers. If only we can show them that the vaccine is good for them, we can save them from themselves."

I see it like this: for reasons that I don't fully understand, a lot of Americans have made a choice to get Coronavirus, rather than get the vaccine, and we should respect that choice. I find it fascinating to try to figure out their real motivations. Because the reason they give -- that the vaccine is riskier than the virus -- is totally against the evidence.

The weird thing is, their own leader said that Covid-19 came from a lab, and although that statement was not based on science, it turns out that science backs him up. Molecular Biology Clues Portray SARS-CoV-2 as a Gain-of-Function Laboratory Manipulation of Bat CoV RaTG13.

So you've got two things you can put in your body. Both of them make you somewhat immune to Covid-19, and both of them were made in labs. The death toll of one of those things is a million times higher. Imagine if it was the other way around -- the right choice would be obvious to everyone.

My best guess is, Covid anti-vaxxers have the same psychological motivation as teenagers who smoke cigarettes, or motorcyclists who don't wear helmets. They're displaying their lack of faith in a system that tells them what's good for them, and they're also displaying a personal identity of being a danger-courting bad-ass.

July 8. By now you've all heard about the lying flat movement in China. I'm trying to think of something to say about it that's not totally obvious, and what I've come up with is, this is the end of "communism".

I put the word in quotes because for a long time now, the word has been more important than the thing. In America, "communist" is a word used to denigrate any attempt to use the state to redistribute wealth or help the poor. In China, "communist" is a word used to give the impression that a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government is for the people.

So in both places, the word is being used to protect a domination system from any attempt to make it more bottom-up -- the opposite of the original intention of the word.

Communism, the thing, came out of the industrial cities of the 1800's, with deeper roots in the 1700's -- the Age of Reason, when domination shifted its metaphysical foundation away from an imaginary sky father, and toward an imaginary clockwork universe.

If the fundamental reality is the Machine, then the fundamental values are efficiency, productivity, usefulness, and central planning by an elite trained in reductionist thinking. That's why all communist states turned out that way. It's also why, in communist literature, human beings are called "workers" -- as if human existence has no meaning other than utilitarian toil.

When Oscar Wilde said "Work is the curse of the drinking classes," his point was that the meaning of existence is to have a good time, and we're blocked from that by the often unnecessary imperative to get things done.

Jeff Bezos has said that he doesn't like the term "work-life balance". Here's a reddit thread about how out of touch that statement is. It's easy for a billionaire to see work and life as a seamless whole. For the rest of us, we need a generous UBI -- or any other public policy such that nobody has a reason to take a job except that they love it.

I don't know if we'll ever get completely there, but we can get a lot closer than we are now. And on the way, maybe someone will write a manifesto that refers to humans as players.

July 5. After last week's pessimism about the internet, today I have some optimistic links about other technologies. Chemical space is big. If we consider all the ways that atoms can be put together into molecules, it's like that Borges story about a library that contains every permutation of characters:

The best guess for the number of plausible compounds up to molecular weight 500... is around 1060. That is a number that the human mind is not well equipped to handle. That collection, assembled into compound vials at, say, 10mg per vial, would exceed the amount of ordinary matter in the entire universe.

Acousto-electric devices reveal new road to miniaturizing wireless tech. A lot of the stuff that computers are now doing with electrons, could be done better with sound waves. Maybe this could save the internet, if we had to rebuild the entire information-processing infrastructure from the ground up, using sound computers, and later, quantum computers. And each rebuilding would force a re-simplification.

Simple, solar-powered water desalination "could provide more than 1.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per hour for every square meter of solar collecting area." It looks like it could also be done on a small scale, which is better politically, because everyone could desalinate their own water instead of depending on a centralized institution for their survival.

Michelin Puts Puffy Sails on Cargo Ships. "The project joins a growing fleet of wind-assisted propulsion initiatives around the world."

Even lower tech, a video about a Tree House Bicycle Elevator.

And Fluid Paint is a cool browser-based paint program.

July 2. For the weekend, drugs. Michael Pollan has a new book called This Is Your Mind on Plants, about three plant-based drugs: caffeine, opium, and mescaline. Greg sends this interview of Pollan by Tim Ferriss. It's loaded with good stuff, on subjects including the war on drugs, which was completely political, and the future of psychedelics after legalization, in which the original substances will be competing with proprietary substances that don't cure people but "mask symptoms or suppress symptoms for better business models." There's also a bit about how 90% of the world is currently mistaking caffeine consciousness for sobriety.

And music. The best song of 2021 is surely something I haven't heard yet, but from what I have heard, it's Kiwi Jr. - Omaha.

July 1. Continuing on the doomed internet, it's fitting that I have to link to the archive.org page of this paywalled article from the Atlantic, The Internet Is Rotting. It's mainly about broken links, but more generally it's about how the internet is not designed for long-term storage, and is really terrible at it, and yet a lot of good practices for long-term information storage have been abandoned because of the internet.

I've said this before: we are right now in a dark age, in the sense that future historians will have few surviving records from our time. Eventually, they won't even think the internet was real. They'll see it as myth or metaphor, like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, or Atlantis, or the Tower of Babel:

In ancient times, a series of tubes covered the whole world, through which anyone could talk to anyone. Great demons battled to control the tubes: the evil Google, the seductive Apple, the all-seeing Facebook, the crazy-making Twitter and the trickster god Trump. The people believed the mutterings of the Net over their own eyes, and the world fell into madness and strife.

More transitory links: Why some biologists and ecologists think social media is a risk to humanity.

The Future of Games is an Instant Flash to the past. It's about an attempt to revive browser games, which the author argues, were largely killed by Apple because they don't want us to have any fun without going through the app store.

Finally, a popular Hacker News thread, A foreign seller has hijacked my Amazon Klein bottle listing. An Amazon apologist comments that all you have to do to prevent this is pay $2000 for a USPTO trademark. The world wide web was designed for distributed bottom-up power, and it's getting to where nobody can participate except large institutions and criminals.

June 29. After some feedback from yesterday's post, it looks like I overstated the psychological factor in runaway complexity. The more powerful factors are economic and technological -- but they're really hard to explain. Probably nobody fully understands what's happening. This subreddit post, On complexity in software, mentions "technical debt from persistently going overly tactical vs. strategic," and the arms race with spammers.

An edited comment from Baltasar:

In industrial mass production, the more nails or screws you make, the cheaper each one of them becomes. In software, the costs go from a lot for the first copy to negligible. I'm trying to get at how there's something about software (and less so, other technology) that by making things more complex it also makes them cheaper. It's much easier to construct a complicated piece of software than a simple one; turns out the cost just got transformed into complexity.

More precisely, a piece of software that is extremely flexible, powerful, useful in many cases is also quite complicated. But the complexity does give something back, it allows a centralization of power, and there's something about having one hammer that works for all nails.

A couple people mention that when things get too complex, someone comes out with a stripped down alternative that takes over, and then in turn gets more complex. This has happened many times with music, but I can't think of any recent examples in IT. Do we really expect a new kind of computer and operating system, that's as simple as 1995, but you can still use it to check your bank balance and buy stuff online?

I actually think that zero-growth complexity is possible. Consider sharks. They've been the same for hundreds of millions of years, and we could do a lot with a social system, or a tech system, as complex as a shark.

But that's not going to happen this time around. And with no way to freeze complexity, or do a clean reset, it can only keep rising until there's a messy reset.

June 28. Returning the subject of the doomed internet, Greg comments:

What the heck are we doing, making things more and more complex, so that fewer and fewer people know how they work?

My beloved Ubuntu Linux, formerly elegantly simple, now has 4 packaging systems. I played with 'flatpak' yesterday to see new features in a PDF viewer I use constantly. I was confident that there would be no changes to my system - that's the whole idea of flatpaks.

It bricked my system in a way that I haven't seen in 20+ years of using Linux. It took me five hours to fix it - and I'm not sure exactly what happened because I had to take big whacks at the problem (ie. deleting entire caches).

Not long ago, these things were worse, but were at least understandable - I knew the boot process of my PC, email was plain text, and you could watch clients and servers communicate in plain text.

I think the reason things keep getting more complex, is the same reason that Elvis and Michael Jackson died. Both of them had a personal doctor, with only one patient, and each doctor got bored doing nothing, and had to justify his existence by doing a lot of unnecessary and ultimately harmful stuff. That's what engineers (and managers and executives) of tech companies are doing. If they don't make upgrades, they feel useless, and I guess it's really hard to upgrade something without making it bigger or more complicated.

Maybe in the future humans will be able to enforce a law that puts a hard ceiling on the size and complexity of systems. So a computer operating system is limited to X lines of code, or the laws of a nation are limited to X words, and going above that is a crime.

Until then, it's runaway complexity and collapse, over and over.

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