Ran Prieur

"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."

-James Tiptree Jr

old stuff



about me

songs and playlists

search this site

Creative Commons License
my Fallout 4 character

March 18. This blog is going to fizzle out if I don't start writing about subjects other than subjects I've written about in the past on which I have nothing new to say. Today, video games, but first some philosophy. What is the point of being human? More precisely, given that reality is full of all kinds of beings living all kinds of lives, what can I experience, as a modern human, that is rare and unusual in the whole scope of creation? Maybe, instead of trying to change society so that future humans can live more like squirrels, I should be asking, if a squirrel got to live as me, how would it have the most fun?

My favorite PC game franchise is Fallout, a post-nuclear RPG set decades to centuries in the future, with retrofuturistic aesthetics. I've played Fallout 2 and 3, and after 3, the developers split into two camps, which made Fallout New Vegas and Fallout 4. By waiting for them to go on sale on GOG.com, I've finally been able to play both for under $20.

It seems like most people prefer New Vegas for its superior story, characters, and dialogue. But if I want that stuff, I'll read a novel. What I want in a game is to wander at random around an open world dotted with "dungeons" -- places I can optionally go into to fight baddies and get loot. Both Fallout 3 and New Vegas make the landscape subservient to the story. The 2D map is often a 1D maze, where buildings or slopes block you (unrealistically) from just going anywhere, until you find the one path through by doing a quest. I haven't run into that problem yet in Fallout 4.

It also has the best character face sculpting I've seen so far. My only complaint is that the combat is really hard. I can't give my character high enough agility to make up for my low agility as a player, so I'm constantly getting killed and going back to saved games, and running away from opponents I still can't beat with many attempts. My long-term goal is to defeat all outdoor enemies so I can just run around.

I don't usually enjoy gaming while high, but I've discovered that running around a well-rendered game world while high is better in some ways than going for a walk in a physical world constrained by cars and fences. Also, the visual experience is a big help for my continuing experimentation with CEVs.

March 13. No ideas this week. But here's an interesting post on The Luddite blog, viewing technology through a three dimensional axis of Need, Want, and Agency, and partly inspired by a project I started and didn't finish.

Also, I've added a few more short reviews to my now-archived post about 2023 movies, including three from Japan: Perfect Days (8/10), Monster (9/10) and Godzilla Minus One (10/10).

March 11. Science links. Controversial new theory of gravity rules out need for dark matter:

Oppenheim's theory envisages the fabric of space-time as smooth and continuous (classical), but inherently wobbly. The rate at which time flows would randomly fluctuate, like a burbling stream, space would be haphazardly warped and time would diverge in different patches of the universe. The theory also envisions an intrinsic breakdown in predictability.

More astronomy, a new model of Tidal Locking, in which the same side of a planet is always facing the sun. It now appears that this will not make the bright side a sterile desert. Air currents would distribute heat and bring clouds to block the sun, and the global climate could even be more stable than a rotating planet.

Surprising link observed between body temperature and depression. "The researchers found that higher levels of depressive symptoms were consistently associated with higher body temperatures." The causality is still unknown, but it's possible that making yourself hot, to "engage the body's self-cooling mechanisms", or just making yourself cold, could reduce depression.

Finally, a fascinating Twitter post arguing that prehistoric venus statues "were likely made by women who were examining their own bodies and sculpting them from their own first person POV", with images showing how this explains the exaggerated proportions.

March 8. Continuing on the subject of integrating technology with freedom, a new comic, What Luddites can teach us about resisting an automated future. The point is not to blindly resist technology, but to carefully choose our technologies to optimize quality of life instead of accumulation of capital.

A few more links. I spend £8500 a year to live on a train

Via No Tech Magazine, a cool page about Songs made directly from sunlight, with small solar panels connected to sound-making electronics.

And from the subreddit, The cities stripping out concrete for earth and plants. Something I noticed, going back to my hometown after 30 years, was that while the edges had been pushed out with McMansions, the old part of town was actually wilder, with bigger trees, restoration of the river, and a culture of letting lawns get scruffy or replacing them with native plants.

March 5. Another quote from a book I'm reading, Morris Berman's Wandering God:

What Woodburn discovered in Tanzania was that the Hadza do not experience any severe food shortages and that they are unconcerned about the future. Although all Hadza consider themselves to be kin, they have few obligations to each other and are not bound by commitments. Everyone has direct access to valued assets, and this provides security for all. Dependency, let alone hierarchy, is not part of the Hadza way of life. What is perhaps the popular image of hunter-gatherer societies -- close, warm, communities that are simultaneously very supportive and very conformist/restrictive -- may be off the mark. Instead, what we often find is a great deal of autonomy and independence.

I haven't written about this stuff in a while, but my position hasn't changed. Just as you need an empty container to carry water, the foundation of all freedom is the freedom to do nothing. The fact that this has been achieved by hunter-gatherers, and not by modernity, should not discourage us from technological ambitions.

Here's a fun question. How far can we go with an all-volunteer economy? Can we go to space? There would be plenty of volunteers to build the rockets, not so many to mine the ore.

Related, a classic essay, The Economics of Star Trek.

March 3. I'm reading a lot of books this year, mostly about anthropology or weird stuff. This is from the latter category, The Real World of Fairies by Dora Van Gelder, about tree spirits:

They learn from the cell life within their own bark the difficulties of survival. They see the life around them and know death intimately, as the trees next to them often fall and die. But the trees learn through all this experience that life never dies and is never wasted. They cannot move about and therefore we think of them as having less life experience, but that is where we are mistaken. It is not through rushing about that one learns, but from taking into oneself the experiences from without and thus feeling the pulse of life beating within. Humanity tries to escape from experience which is often suffering. When it rains we go to shelter; when death comes we put away the sight of it. The trees let life beat against them, and try to withstand it.

February 29. Stray links. From 2021, Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown. (archive) "For 80 years or so, proclaiming that you were having a nervous breakdown was a legitimized way of declaring a sort of temporary emotional bankruptcy in the face of modern life's stresses." Now, it's been replaced by other diagnoses that benefit the pharmaceutical industry and keep you on the treadmill.

From the subreddit, this blog post has an interesting idea. Tech has graduated from the Star Trek era to the Douglas Adams age

Some doom, FBI director warns that Chinese hackers are preparing to 'wreak havoc' on US critical infrastructure. I continue to think that infrastructure is the softest target for political extremists, and I don't know how it's holding up so well.

An interesting Hacker News thread about the mysterious Roman dodecahedrons. There is no explanation that fits all the data, but the top comment in the thread suggests "that it's an examination piece to qualify as a master metalworker."

And a surprising result in a study of online usernames, that stable pseudonyms created a more civil environment than real names.

February 27. Happy links from Reddit. What is something that Americans are (actually) very good at?

What country seems dangerous but really isn't?

What jobs are 99.9% safe from AI making it obsolete? This is a long sub-thread about physical construction. I suppose a real techno-enthusiast would be unhappy that bots can't make our buildings while we play in the holodeck, but I find it inspiring to read about human adaptability and how much it outperforms planning.

And from Ask Old People, How was being gay seen when you were a teenager? This is one of the few ways that America has greatly improved in my lifetime, along with the marginalization of cigarettes, and continuing progress on drug legalization. I used to be annoyed that the mainstream left was focusing on cultural issues instead of economic issues. But hey, they got a win.

February 25. Continuing on positive emotions, this subreddit post disagrees with my statement that nobody would consciously avoid feeling good. Clearly this subject is less straightforward than I thought, because it's hard to separate "feeling good" from the stuff that you feel good about, from social displays of feeling good, and from the whole internal ecology of how you feel.

When I think about my personal perspective, it's mainly about motivation: feeling good about doing things. That's why, despite high grades and test scores, I didn't get into an elite college, and never passed an interview for a salaried job, because everyone could tell I wasn't really into it. I failed at homesteading because tasks that I valued in an abstract way turned out to feel like chores. I'm constantly trying to 1) find stuff that I feel like doing, or 2) hack my own perspective so that I feel like doing stuff, or if both of those fail, 3) force myself to do stuff, which is exhausting. So that's the context from which I don't understand why someone would avoid feeling good if they have the option.

And Noah comments:

Happiness is not a meaningful state without something to compare it to. If there was no suffering, we would have no word to describe happiness, it would simply be the natural state of things. It would be invisible to us I imagine, like the background space of our awareness.

That sounds wonderful! And it reminds me of the Christian idea, that the fall of man happened through knowledge of good and evil. This never occurred to me, but maybe the principle that you can't have something without also having its opposite, is only true on a cognitive level.

February 23. I'm mostly recovered from Covid, except for my sense of smell, which is around ten percent. I've found, during times of suffering, the best move is not to look forward to the suffering being over, but to imagine that it's going to continue, just like this, for a hundred years. Being fully present is always good for your mental health, but being present with bliss only teaches you to be present with more bliss; being present with pain teaches you to be present under many other conditions. I've also found, when pain gets beyond a certain level, there's no space for any kind of rumination, all you can do is feel it. I've only been there a few times in my life, not this time, which was pretty mild.

There's a common belief that suffering is necessary for pleasure, or that evil is necessary for good, like the change of the seasons. It's one of those ideas that sounds like wisdom, but when you think about it, it's not actually true. There are some people who are happy all the time, and other people who are miserable all the time. I think suffering and evil are like taking a wrong turn on a journey. Taking a wrong turn sometimes happens, and some good can come of it. But it's never necessary.

Revisiting a link from a couple weeks ago, Depressed individuals tend to avoid experiencing positive emotions. Nobody would ever consciously choose to avoid feeling good, so they must be doing it subconciously, and it must be hard not to. So I'm thinking, what instruction would you give to depressed people, to change their habits? Something like, "Imagine the world is full of very subtle invitations to feel good, like tiny packages that you can look for, and open."

Related: a post from the Spirituality subreddit, Has anyone heard about the real way to pray? Basically, instead of asking for what you don't have, start with something that you already have, even the tiniest amount of it, and then feel grateful, and then ask for more.

February 21. This week I have my second round of Covid. It started out exactly like a cold. Then on the third day, when I felt worse instead of better, I got suspicious and took a test. Overall it's milder than my first time, but this time it's given me a cough, and I know the lungs are where Covid gets you. I've started doing a weird exercise, breathing all the way out, squeezing down to the floor of my lungs, because I read somewhere that that's a good way to detox.

One stray link on meditation: Long-term meditation might change your poop, hinting at effects on the gut–brain axis

February 19. Continuing on altered states of consciousness, my New Year's resolution was to get high more often -- with the constraint that it still has to be good for me. I completely failed. But I did get a better sense of my limits. My ceiling is five sessions a week, each session being less than a tenth of a gram of flower in a desktop vaporizer. Beyond that, the benefits are sketchy and the withdrawal is obvious. My sweet spot is probably three a week, clearly better than two, and no withdrawal. Related: a short thread from the Elder Trees subreddit, Does anybody else feel like an NPC when not smoking regularly?

It's a common belief that meditation is a good substitute for drugs. But if I were to make a Venn diagram of how I benefit from weed and meditation, those circles wouldn't even be on the same page. Weed is like parasailing: without having to do anything, I fly. Meditation is like swimming lessons: I learn the skill of not sinking into bad thought patterns. It's never taken me above my baseline, or out of my default mode network. I usually practice in the middle of the night when I can't sleep, and lately I've been trying to alternate between very narrow focus and very wide focus. When I'm out walking, I see how long I can go without thinking words, and I'm making progress in posture and smooth breathing. But as long as I'm sober, I continue to feel disconnected in a non-living world.

Update: One exception is what I call a "full body glow". More words will not explain it any better, and I don't have to meditate to get it. All I have to do is relax. But it probably comes from putting in the hours focusing on my body, and my next ambition is to feel it when I'm not relaxing.

February 16. Some Reddit links about altered states of consciousness, starting with this exceptional trip report. There's also good stuff in the discussion thread.

Earth is like a "program" that uses complex cause and effect sequences with all of nature just to cultivate moments of the sensation of ecstasy.
What the hell is all this, consciousness is just having fun with energy combinations. It's withholding its own true nature from itself by creating energy labyrinths to arrive at its own true nature differently every time.

The best thread yet on my favorite question, If you could choose what happens after you die, how would you want the afterlife to be like? I like to pretend I do get to choose my afterlife, for the same reasons as Pascal's wager. I choose a personal paradise based on everything I imagined in this life but couldn't do because of the limitations of this world. The last thing I want is reincarnation as another clueless human, and yet that's a popular choice.

Of course, this world is great with the right mental state, described in this post, How usual is this experience? Maybe one person in a million?

Lately, after I do my practices in the morning, I feel like I have no body or mind. I will just be in a cloud of bliss and feel amazing. If I stare out the window at a tree or the sky I may just go into trance mode where the world seems to dance and move together slowly, steadily and peacefully but frozen in this very moment. Often I will just cry out of love and gratitude for no reason, or cry if I see something tragic or sad. I actually don't remember when the last time I was fearful about anything. I seem to have accepted that this is it. Life is here and now. If I relax my breath, it feels amazing to be here wherever I am. Death seems like it will be the ultimate relaxation - the most blissful thing. When pain comes I welcome it as an amazing opportunity to shed some more of my burden.

Finally, thanks Noah for this fascinating DID Q&A, DID being the new term for multiple personality disorder.

February 14. Continuing from Monday, Matt wonders if there's a way for transcendence (vertical) and paradox (horizontal) to be reconciled. I was already assuming they could be, but when I think about it, it's probably like one of those illusions where you can't see it both ways at once. Getting transcendence requires non-paradoxical certainty, and getting paradox requires not caring about transcendence. I also wonder if "enlightenment" is popularly imagined as transcendence, but when you get there, it's actually paradox. That would explain a lot about Buddhism.

I've finished Owen Barfield's Saving The Appearances, and despite his general ability to see through the filters of modernity, he totally buys into the modern idea of transcendence, by arguing that we are not going back to the "original participation" of indigenous peoples, but forward to "final participation". This might have inspired Ken Wilber's concept of pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational, and I think both authors are reaching. I would call the next stage "informed participation" or "post-rational". It's neither final nor transcendent, just the next thing we're doing.

Barfield was a Christian, and he spends the later chapters in wild speculations about the incarnate word. He doesn't seem to notice that he's created a cognitive framework that explains how Jesus could have actually done miracles -- and that we all could. "With God all things are possible." It's not that you can manifest any reality you want, but that we can filter down the incomprehensible true reality into all kinds of different working realities, any of which can do things that seem impossible to the others.

February 12. Psychology links. Surprising link between time perception and wound healing revealed: "By manipulating participants' sense of how much time had passed, researchers found that wounds healed faster when people believed more time had elapsed, suggesting a powerful link between our minds and our physical health."

Did the ancient Greeks and Romans experience Alzheimer's? A lot less than we do, which suggests that "dementias are diseases of modern environments and lifestyles, with sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution largely to blame."

Depressed individuals tend to avoid experiencing positive emotions. I'm sure if you asked depressed people, they would say they are not doing this. So they're doing it subconsciously, and they can't fix it until they bring their awareness to that level -- which must be really hard or we'd be a lot happier.

The Psychedelic Experience Scale has been updated to add some new stuff, including "paradoxicality":

This dimension captures experiences where conventional logic fails, and the individual confronts the limits of rational thought, diving into a realm where opposites coexist. Items within this subscale relate to experiences of identity loss, the dissolution of temporal boundaries, and the merging of self with the environment.

The article also mentions that "transcendence might not inherently be a part of the mystical experience, but might be more an experience in its own right." This totally fits with something I just read in Morris Berman's book Wandering God, that paradoxicality (he calls it paradox) is a feature of horizontal nomadic spirituality, and transcendence is a feature of the vertical spirituality of settled cultures.

February 10. Just saw a great line on the psychonaut subreddit: "Happy people use drugs. Drugs use sad people." It reminds me of that line from the Gospel of Thomas: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man."

February 8. Neal Stephenson's Most Stunning Prediction is an interview about The Diamond Age and chatbots. He mentions that AI will be bad for artists, and this blog post (thanks Gabriel) goes full doom about AI and the end of art, concluding that "For writers, the value of producing text will go to zero."

That's funny, because for me, the value of producing text is the intrinsic pleasure of writing stuff and sharing it with a small audience, and that will not be changed in the slightest by AI. He's talking about the financial value, and he's right. AI is driving a wedge between human creativity and capitalism. From now on, we're all Vincent Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson.

Whether this causes a creative dark age, or a creative golden age, depends on whether we get an unconditional basic income. Without it, everybody who needs to make a living will be forced to do something other than writing or illustrating -- or any other job that can be done by machines. It's going to be pretty grim. With a UBI, the human creative process will be more free than it's ever been -- because before money it was constrained by local culture.

Even better than a UBI would be making all necessities free at point of use, so that it would be realistic to live without money. That's not going to happen any time soon, but here's a fitting article recently posted to the subreddit: Isolated Indigenous people as happy as wealthy western peers. I'll repeat my comment there: Money only buys happiness after the ability to be happy without money has been destroyed.

February 5. Continuing from last week, I don't expect my AI game utopia to actually happen. The limiting factor is human boredom, and current games already have more than enough content for most players. What I really want is an environment, real or artificial, that continues to generate the feel of a great game. While AI could do that in theory, humans are now in a rare and strange position, in which we're using loads of resources to make artificial worlds for our eyes and ears and fingers, while our bodies sit cramped and dormant in a physical world that feels increasingly meaningless. We could do full-body VR, but that's just throwing more resources down a path that doesn't come out anywhere.

I don't want to call it a dead end, because we learn stuff from virtual worlds, about how we want the real world to be. Gaming is the closest I get, other than drugs, to feeling at home in a living world. And paradoxically, I feel most present in my body when I pretend I'm testing out a game avatar.

Zooming out to metaphysics, suppose there's something like reincarnation. Given how much fun wild animals are having, why would anyone want to be human? I can think of two reasons. First is the enormous variation in human experience. Being a dolphin is pretty much like being any other dolphin. But as a human, you could be anything from a Roman slave to a Medieval serf to a modern tech worker. I wonder if being a modern human is the many-lives equivalent of going to Disneyland. It's super-crowded, and more annoying than fun, but it's such a peculiar spectacle that everyone has to do it.

The other reason is imagination. Dogs can dream about chasing squirrels, and elephants probably have awesome dreams about elephant-like things. But humans, while fully awake, can go inside our heads and do dog things, or elephant things, or be wizards or space pirates, or do crazy stuff that no one ever thought of until this moment. And through storytelling and later books and now video games, we can share our worlds of imagination with other people. And if there is a more-real world outside this world, then maybe we're learning stuff here, about how we want that world to be.

February 1. I don't know if my brain is resting this week, or if it's being numbed by playing Fallout New Vegas. I don't like the game enough to play it all the way through, but it's fun to enter that mind space, and now I'm wondering if video games are influencing popular philosophy. For example, I'm about to "intercept" the Great Khans at Boulder City, but I know that whatever time I happen to get there will be exactly the right time, because the game is coded according to relationships rather than timetables -- not unlike our own synchronicity. Games are making it easier for us to imagine reality, not as a fixed physical world, but as a vaporous potential that gets filled in according to how we look at it.

And Fallout isn't even procedurally generated. This is my greatest hope for AI. Imagine your favorite open world game, with no borders, just more of the same stuff, forever. The next challenge would be multiplayer, and I imagine a larger system that could take your choices in your game, and translate them into someone else's game to make it more real. So if I'm buying a sword in Hyrule, and you're selling a gun in Vice City, with a few adjustments, we could be each other's NPCs. Now imagine taking that farther, as far as it could go, and it's basically what psychonauts say we already have, a shared world that somehow puts each person at the very center.

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. John Tobey's archive takes a snapshot every few days, but sooner or later it will succumb to software updates. If anyone is interested in taking it on, email me and I'll send you the code. Also, the Wayback Machine takes a snapshot a few times a month.

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 / July / September / December
2022: February / April / July / September / November
2023: January / March / June / August / November
2024: January