Ran Prieur

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

-James Tiptree Jr

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April 5. I often wish for more overlap between what I feel like doing and what's good for me to do, and this week I got a win. I've been obsessively playing a browser game called Guess My RGB. You move three color sliders to try to match the background color of the screen. Not only is it compelling in the sense that I always want to play one more game, it also has a really satisfying learning curve. At first it was taking me more than ten tries every time, and now I'm usually getting it in five or six. Just by following a compulsion, I've gained more color awareness and color intelligence. I used to think raising the saturation of an image somehow magically added more color. Now I know that it's just spreading out the sliders, moving the high ones higher and the low ones lower. Now, walking around the city, I'll think, that green has some red in it, or that's a really pure blue.

Posted to the subreddit, 'We need to accept the weeds', about a trend in the Netherlands to tear up paving tiles around houses. I'm thinking, why were the tiles put there in the first place? Western aesthetics are shifting, from appreciating human-made cleanness, to appreciating the rough beauty of the non-human-made world.

And To Keyi Toko Zonga is a pretty good new album of psychedelic world music.

April 3. Continuing on the afterlife, Matt comments: "What if there are alien metaphysical versions of Libertarian seasteads? Pirate enclaves? Zealous empires? The Borg Collective? Societies that convince you they have all the answers and that their rules should be followed. All between physicality and ultimate unity."

Heraclitus wrote, "After death, nothing expected, nor imagined." That doesn't change my strategy. Even if you don't believe in an afterlife, you can say the same thing about the ordinary future: It's unpredictable, but it's still going to work with what I give it.

Related: a Skunk Ledger post imagining bots making supervirtual speculations about Servers. And a Reddit thread, What is the most profound realization that you have come to while on a psychedelic trip?

April 1. Continuing on indigenous metaphysics, lately I've been thinking about the afterlife. I don't plan on dying soon, but neither of my parents made it to 80, despite healthy lifestyles. If I have 20 years left, 2004 was yesterday.

Here's my question. To what extent is the afterlife influenced by culture? According to western metaphysics, not at all. Under materialism, nobody gets an afterlife, and under Christianity, it's the same heaven or hell for everyone. But Sahlins' book is full of examples of hunter-gatherers who continue to maintain empirical relationships with dead ancestors. A dying Walbiri will expect to hang around the living Walbiri, and it would not even occur to them to say that the Mianmin also get the Walbiri afterlife and not the Mianmin afterlife. The idea that other cultures get your culture's afterlife is unusual, presumptuous, and recent.

If we accept that the afterlife is influenced by culture, it opens a really interesting can of worms. Reports of a world beyond this world, from NDEs to psychedelic trips to mathematics, are wildly divergent. We have a lot more options than our ancestors.

That doesn't mean it's a blank slate. If this world is contained in some other world, then probably my story in this world is contained in a story in that world. But in that case, what is the story that contains the story of billions of us being rootless, generations removed from a land-and-ancestor metaphysical context?

My guess is, being a modern human is like being in an airport terminal for consciousness. Probably a lot of people are going straight back to the void, especially if that's what they believe in and wish for. They may be surprised to find that awareness survives nonexistence. A Christian who dies expecting hell might go to a hell-like place, but it won't be eternal, because the fundamental reality is flux.

If you want a Harry Potter afterlife, I doubt you can get it exactly, but there should be a way to at least get the same vibe. I'd love to be a Roger Zelazny landscape-shifting walker, and my attitude is a lot like Pascal's wager. Pascal said, I'm going to believe in a God who will reward or punish me based on that belief, just in case. I'm thinking, I'm going to act as if I'm training for a certain next stage of being, and see how it goes.

March 28. Last month I wrote about Morris Berman's distinction between the horizontal spirituality of nomadic cultures, and the vertical spirituality of settled cultures. Now I'm reading another book that does a better job of explaining it. I learned about it from this great review, The Enchanted Worlds of Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins was an anthropologist best known for his 1966 paper on the original affluent society. In his later years he became more interested in hunter-gatherer metaphysics, and his final book is called The New Science of the Enchanted Universe.

Berman called vertical spirituality transcendence, and horizontal spirituality "paradox". Sahlins would say it's not paradoxical at all, it only seems that way from the perspective of modern culture. He calls hunter-gatherer spirituality immanence. Where transcendence has two worlds, the disenchanted physical world, and the invisible world of the divine floating above it, in immanence there's only one world, and the divine is right there in it. From page 39:

As imported from our own transcendentalist ontology, the depiction of African "religion" and similar cosmologies in terms of a natural/supernatural opposition is a kind of ethnographic original sin. Yet it is only one of a series of related categorical distinctions that have for too long and too often corrupted the ethnographies of enspirited societies: including spiritual and material, nature and culture, subject and object, reality and belief. Based on the assumption of a divine other world apart from the human world -- where "religion" is superstructural and "spirits" are immaterial -- what these distinctions commonly ignore is the cosmic subjectivity of the immanentist cutures they purport to so describe. They ignore cultural worlds where subjectivity, not physicality, is the common ground of existence... a sentient ecology positing a universe of communicating and interacting subjects.

It's funny, you know what else puts subjectivity as the ground of physicality? For the last hundred years, our own physics. Here's a comment from the Psychonaut subreddit, quoting physicists on consciousness.

I'm only a third of the way through the book, so I don't know if Sahlins makes this point explicitly. But every time we say we're seeking "transcendence", whether it's Christians going to heaven, Buddhists escaping the cycle of rebirth, or techies uploading their consciousness to the cloud, what we're really seeking is complete separation from the world that, in our partial separation, we call nature.

March 25. Stray links. Mars Has an Unexpected Influence on Earth's Oceans and Climate, repeating every 2.4 million years.

Some good stuff in this Reddit thread, What's a civilization ending scenario that most people aren't aware of?

Indonesia's e-bike shops are building their own batteries. I think this is a glimpse of the likely future: medium level technology, decentralized, and somewhat dangerous.

The surprising psychological benefits of framing depression as a functional signal. More precisely:

The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the Biopsychosocial Risk Factor condition, depression was introduced as a disease, akin to cancer or diabetes, with a focus on its behavioral, environmental, and biological risk factors. In the signal condition, participants were presented with the notion that depression could serve an adaptive function, signaling the need for greater attention to certain areas of life.

And more psychology, Why you should add "nothing" to your work-life schedule

March 22. Quick loose end on gaming. The game Rogue, back in 1980, had procedurally generated dungeons, monsters, and treasures. With how far AI has come, it should already be possible for a game to have procedurally generated NPCs, dialogue, and quests. Surely humans can still do it better, but I love the idea of an open world RPG where you're not just choosing a path on a decision tree, but going where no player has gone before.

Posted to the subreddit, Recessions Actually Make People Live Longer. The reason seems to be pollution. So we could get the same benefits without a recession, just with urban design that doesn't favor cars. Related: Paris cycling numbers double in one year thanks to massive investment

Also from the subreddit, The hunter-gatherers of the 21st century who live on the move. It's mainly about the social benefits: "staying mobile is a deliberate choice because it enables large and complex societies -- societies that look more like mobile constellations than villages or cities." Related: Europe's last hunter-gatherers had sophisticated societies that helped them avoid inbreeding

Loosely related to nomadism, my latest obsession is the visual experience of zooming through a landscape. I'm doing it in Fallout, trying to do it with closed eye visuals, and now I'm looking for videos that do it with drone footage. The best one I've found is 6 Minutes Of Mountain Surfing in Norway. Yesterday I got high and watched it on half speed while listening to Hildegard von Bingen.

March 20. Continuing on Fallout, games are often judged on their story, which usually means following a path through social interactions: I met this person, I did this quest, I joined this faction. Fallout New Vegas has more options for this kind of story. But Fallout 4 has more game mechanics that generate stories on other levels. For example:

I couldn't beat the raiders in the Corvega plant, so I snuck in through a pipe, used a dose of Jet to get past a turret, and did a lucky headshot on the leader to complete the quest -- using a .308 bullet, which are rare, so I have to save them for important shots. By now, I had a ton of loot stashed in the Sanctuary root cellar, and still hadn't found a merchant. So I took the Lone Wanderer perk, enabling me to carry more stuff, and I loaded up and did a straight run all the way to Diamond City. I used the postman hat to raise my endurance so I could sprint past enemies without fighting them, and at one point some two-headed deer ran with me. Then in the city I used fancy clothing and a dose of Day Tripper to boost my charisma, so I could get a better deal in bartering, and came out with some good chest armor and a deadly laser pistol. To make better use of it, my next perk should be Sneak.

Again, this "story" that emerges organically from good game design, is more fun for me than a "story" of pre-coded character stuff. But on a tangent to social philosophy, I wonder about the popularity of pre-coded character stuff. There are a lot of games where you join a faction and the faction gives you quests, and I think this is filling a need that could be filled in the real world, if it were designed better. The "factions" in modern society, from corporations to religions to nation states, tend to be predatory toward their own members.

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.

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