Ran Prieur

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

-James Tiptree Jr

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August 18. Stray links. Every so often there will be a big Reddit thread where people confess their secrets. The best one ever, eleven years ago, was What's your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out? A couple weeks ago there was another good thread, but noticeably sadder: What's one thing you've never told anyone - but will tell us?

A happier thread from Ask Old People, Who was the coolest person you ever knew?

Last week, when I mentioned daydreaming, this video was posted to the subreddit, a promo for a book that's basically a daydreaming manual: Top 10 Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself

A thoughtful post, Is this a good book for me, now? The idea is non-controversial but people don't think about it enough, that the value of a book is in the context of where you are when you read it, and where it can take you from there.

And some good news, Feral desert donkeys are digging wells, giving water to parched wildlife

August 16. It's too hot this week for thinking. Gary writes, "I would love to hear your take on the recent UAP hearings and disclosure rattlings."

UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena) is the new word for UFO, and it's better because "phenomenon" is more accurate than "object". I've read a lot of books on this stuff, and I think it's neither space aliens, nor secret human tech, nor unreliable witnesses. It's something we can't understand with our present way of thinking. There will never be proof, because proof means we capture it in our present way of thinking. And the sightings will never go away. There will continue to be waves of sightings and waves of public interest, which will always fizzle out because we can't do anything about it on a practical level. Maybe when enough people are doing psychedelics, we'll develop a way of thinking that is better able to engage with weird stuff.

Related, two key paragraphs from his book Wild Talents: Charles Fort on magic

August 14. Negative links, starting with a new Reddit thread, What American city has fallen the furthest in the last 5 years?. A key comment:

Strong towns has been talking for 10+ years about how urban sprawl creates massive infrastructure liabilities that low density development doesn't generate the tax base to support. The only reason cities have stayed solvent is due to new investment from continuous growth, which has allowed them to kick the can down the road for decades. But cities can't grow forever. Once the population levels off the house of cards comes crashing down. The pandemic was just the catalyst for this in some major cities, but it will eventually happen everywhere if we keep building our cities the way we do.

Cory Doctorow is Kickstarting a book to end enshittification, because Amazon will not carry it. More precisely, he won't sell it on Amazon because they require DRM, and I wouldn't either. "When a tech company can lock in its users and suppliers, it can drain value from both sides, using DRM and other lock-in gimmicks to keep their business even as they grow ever more miserable on the platform."

Carrot Problems starts with a story from WWII, when the RAF covered up their new onboard radar, by saying the pilots could see better from eating lots of carrots.

Once you look for Carrot Problems, you see them everywhere. Essentially, any time someone achieves success in a way they don't want to admit publicly, they have to come up with an excuse for their abilities. And that means misleading a bunch of people into (potentially) wasting their time, or worse.... Most business biographies become useless once you realise that they're Carrot Problemmed. For this reason, Carrot Problems greatly increase the value of being an insider.

Finally, with recent controversy about what elite colleges can look at, to decide who gets in, this argument is refreshing: Maybe the problem is that Harvard exists. Specifically, the practice of dividing society into future winners and non-winners is harmful, especially when it's done so early in life.

August 11. Normally I ignore personal criticism, but a post on the subreddit compared me to Nietzsche's "last man", and I have to follow the coincidence, because I was already planning to use that quote in another project. "We have invented happiness, say the last men, and blink." It's a trope in sci-fi, future humans made insipid by material comforts.

Of course those characters are based on us. Our upper classes have been made clueless, not by comfort, but by power over others. Our lower classes are apathetic because schools and workplaces are designed to break their spirits. In a world of universal abundance, neither of those things can happen, because even the poorest can say fuck off.

The techno-utopian doctrine, that we either go extinct or colonize space, carefully excludes the most likely timeline. Humans are tough and space is big -- another ten thousand years of trying stuff on Earth is realistic. And if in that time we manage a minimum standard of living that's sufficient for us all to do our own thing, it could serve as a platform for the next level of humanity.

The present age is a Gordon Ramsay cooking show, everyone rushing around on the thin edge between fame and elimination. Imagine a cooking show where a baker could spend a week crafting a dough cathedral. We sit passively watching people who are really good at flashy achievements. Imagine that same level of skill and ambition, fully distributed to a billion subtle obsessions.

I've got multiple obsessions going on right now, and while most of them putter along out of sight, I keep cranking out short playlists. A lot of people use Spotify as a library, where a playlist is every song they can think of in that category. My lists are tested by actual listening, and I'm really happy with my new 93 minute Prog Rock sampler. Also I've overhauled and tightened my favorite songs page, now called songs and playlists, with Spotify on the side bar, and other stuff in the center, including a Not On Spotify playlist, and two top ten lists.

August 9. Two loose ends on the last post. Thanks Dougald, who has read Hospicing Modernity, for letting me know that the extreme scenario Pinchbeck mentions is not a prediction, but an exercise to get people to explore a doomier headspace. Also, on the subject of human extinction, a 1999 sci-fi short by Bruce Sterling, Homo sapiens declared extinct, because we use future tech to change ourselves. "Not only is humanity extinct but, strictly speaking, pretty much everyone alive today should be classified as a unique, post-natural, one-of-a-kind species."

And four Hacker News threads. Have attention spans been declining? If you click through to the article, the author looks at the subject in great detail, and cannot find a study that proves it. Conclusion: "It seems likely to me that individual attention spans have declined, but I wouldn't be surprised if the decline was relatively small, noisy and dependent on specific tests."

When did people stop being drunk all the time? The linked article has a ton of data about the surprising quantities of beer and wine that people were drinking for most of history. This didn't change until the 1800s, partly because of better water purification, and partly because there were more jobs that couldn't be done drunk.

The Long History of Nobody Wants to Work Anymore. The linked post is just a bunch of examples of people saying that phrase, and the thread is mostly discussion about why people are correct to not want to work, until they can work on their own terms or get paid more.

How too much daydreaming affected me. The author of the linked post, and some people in the thread, have an actual problem. I'm a heavy daydreamer but I can always turn my attention to the outside world if I really need to. Also, there's a lot of talk about daydreaming because you're bored. I would frame it the other way around: I have such an abundance of daydreams that I can never be bored. Or, I can't suffer from not having enough to do, but I suffer all the time from having to pay attention to stuff that's not interesting. It's not my fault if the world outside my head is not as good as the world inside it.

But then I'm wondering: Is that true? The outside world is more colorful, more detailed, and more surprising than the inside world. I suppose I just enjoy the process of reality creation. One of my favorite daydreams is an apocalypse where everyone splits off into their own universe.

August 7. I was planning to post links this week, but now I want to write about the future. Thanks Doug for sending me the full text of this paywalled article, Hospicing Effective Altruism, in which Daniel Pinchbeck reviews two books, What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill, and Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira.

MacAskill starts with a bland idea, that it's good to try to make the future better, and then tells a tale of pure bullshit, by which I mean that it's easy to think about, unsurprising, and transparently pushes your emotional buttons. Specifically, either humans exterminate ourselves soon, or we make it through to full-on Star Trek, and it all depends on what we do right now. The word "we", in this kind of book, is a call for you to get stressed out about the actions of billionaires and dictators and the blind forces of history. My position is, if it's big enough to be on the news, there's nothing you can do about it, except try to get out of its way.

The other book has some good ideas about human culture: that we should stop seeing ourselves as detached from the non-human world and heroically imposing our will on it. But it's still very doomy, predicting three billion deaths by 2045, through "1) unprecedented famine; 2) major viral and fungal outbreaks; 3) a global mental health crisis; 4) incurable new diseases caused by combined toxins and microplastics in food and water; and 5) violent civil conflicts." I agree that all that stuff is going to happen, but even World War II only killed three percent of all humans.

My fifty year prediction is unchanged from last year: The world will continue to get more techno-utopian, more techno-dystopian, and more post-apocalyptic, all at the same time. Massive camps of climate refugees will be watched and clumsily fed by drones. Polar bears will go extinct and coyotes will thrive. Broken things will increasingly exceed the motivation and skills to fix them, and infrastructure will fail first in places with less money. Complex systems will be hollowed out and filled in by simple systems, some better and some worse. Fanatical movements will destroy stuff and burn themselves out.

My one thousand year prediction is a wide variety of mellowed-out low-tech societies. Our best buildings will have been preserved, but they won't know much about us because our records are on short-lived media. Attempts to revive old tech will lead to interesting stuff, but there will never again be a global internet or space travel, and they may eventually believe that those are fanciful myths. Instead, through paradigms we can't imagine, people will do different kinds of impossible things. If we go extinct, it will not be through failure but success. Humanity: been there, done that.

August 4. Bunch o' links. Is slowness the essence of knowledge? The article covers slow food, slow science, and mostly slow thinking.

MIT engineers create an energy-storing supercapacitor from ancient materials. Using only cement, carbon black, and water, it "could eventually be incorporated into the concrete foundation of a house, where it could store a full day's worth of energy while adding little to the cost."

This tiny device could reforest the entire planet (thanks Erik). Again using very simple design, they've invented a thing that corkscrews seeds into the ground, greatly increasing the viability of seeds dropped by drones.

These Wavy Walls Actually Use Fewer Bricks Than a Straight Wall, because a straight wall would have to be much thicker to not fall down.

Banished to a Remote Idaho Valley, Beavers Created a Lush Wetland

And I've uploaded a video. This is something I've been meaning to do for years. One of my favorite songs of the 80s is My Mother The War by 10,000 Maniacs. Both YouTube and Spotify have a tepid version of the song incorrectly identified as this great version.

August 2. Continuing on the subject of moral recovery, a thread on Ask Old People, Do bad people as they get older ever "get it" and realize they were a bad person? The answer is mostly no, and the top comment lays out the recipe for a bad person: "low self awareness and poor moral development."

Farther down is a link to this fascinating page, Down the rabbit hole of estranged parents' forums. Basically, the parents in these forums say nothing about what they've been accused of doing, unless the accuser makes a mistake they can jump on. Meanwhile, forums for adult children of abusers are loaded with details, and they even challenge each other to make sure they're getting the details right.

Another word for "self-awareness" is metacognition: a perspective that looks inward, and neither reflexively condemns nor reflexively excuses, but tries to understand and suggest adjustments. I've seen it called "the science of self-observation", and it's a difficult skill to learn. Without it, you may fall into the pseudoscience of self-observation, where you start with what you want to believe and pick out evidence.

There's a cartoon trope, where a character has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, giving advice. That's three voices: the angel, the devil, and the self, and three voices is too many for someone with low cognitive powers. Instead, most bad-doers have two voices: the self, who is completely selfish, and the justifier, who tells the self that they're behaving correctly, and blanks out all evidence to the contrary.

Again, if someone else is doing this, there's nothing you can do. But if you're doing it, you can chip away at those habits with innocence and curiosity. An interesting question is, where does the angel voice come from? Somewhere I read about a hypnotist saying that when people get deep enough, they all have the same calm and reasonable voice. I suppose the goal of meditation is to be in that mental state all the time.

July 31. Another great issue of The Whippet. This one has a cool bit about ghosts of the tsunami, and a review of this essay, Two Failure Modes of Emerging Technologies. The basic idea is that people who say, "Oh no, AI will take over the world" are actually techno-optimists, assuming that AI will work well, and not considering something more realistic: that AI will work badly but be widely used anyway. So the danger of facial recognition is not that the government will always know where you are, but that you'll get arrested for looking like someone else. This is why I always say that the prophet of our time was not Orwell but Kafka.

And then, it's funny, I was already planning to write about the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. While I'm not Christian, there are two things in the New Testament that I've found more helpful than anything in any other religion. One of them is "Judge not that you be not judged," and the other is this parable, in which the vineyard owner pays some workers the standard wage for a full day; but then he keeps bringing in more workers, and paying them the same wage for less and less work. The early workers say, that's not fair, they should get less than us. And the owner says, fuck off, I can be generous.

The standard interpretation is that the wage is eternal life in heaven, the early workers are people who were righteous their whole lives, and the late workers are people who repent late in life. Another interpretation is that the wage is making earth more like heaven, and we can't move in that direction unless we agree that people who come later will get a better deal than people who came earlier.

Another interpretation is that the early workers are your past self, the late workers are your future self, and the wage is any beneficial change in your habits. Your present self may resist this change, on behalf of your past self, because you don't want to admit that you've been doing it wrong all this time for no good reason.

July 28. Continuing on evil, my definition isn't airtight, and surely evil is clever enough to have counter-measures for innocence. I think the main one is compartmentalization. Someone's surface personality could be full-on puppy dog, while they're unaware of a sinister sub-personality that's pulling the strings. Conversely, a person lacking empathy can still be benign, through careful understanding of the effects of their actions.

I'm also thinking about institutional evil, which works by outsourcing compulsive selfishness to the rules of the institution. This happens a million times a day: Our company has to do this bad thing, because to do otherwise would lower the stock value. Can a corporation made up of 100% good people still be evil? I think the key, again, is compartmentalization. One thing evil must do to survive, is block the expansion of awareness.

Matt comments:

When you're intentionally harming others, there are basically two metacognitive options: you can tell yourself a story that the harm has a point, or you can understand it as pointless.

I've seen people choosing the second option, but it's mostly in relation to animals -- people shooting jackrabbits from their trucks for fun, or kids stepping on ants. I have this vague childhood memory of getting upset at my best friend for stomping a bunch of ants on the sidewalk. He got mad at me for getting mad.

Spelling it out: First, there's the motive to feel good. Second, there's the discovery that you can feel good by doing something harmful. Third, there's the challenge to be aware of the harm you're doing. Fourth, there's hostility to that expansion of awareness.

I don't think it makes sense to say a person is evil, only that a person has fallen into a compelling mistake, and they may or may not manage to climb out.

July 26. Today, evil. What is it and where does it come from? I don't believe in original sin, but I think mistakes are inevitable, and evil is just a very big mistake that humans have fallen into. I've been thinking about how to define it, and come up with three principles.

1) Evil is defined by the mental state of the evildoer, not the feelings of the victim. Otherwise we have to say tornadoes are evil.

2) Evil is social. It's about the relationship, in the mind of the evildoer, with other people. If you have to say "I don't care about other people," then you care about other people. It would not occur to a hawk to say "I don't care about mice."

More precisely, evil is egocentric and adversarial. It requires a sense of "self" that's not just your stream of experience, but a third person view of who you supposedly are, and a preoccupation with the status or significance of that self, in competition with the not-self, such you can score points by setting apart the self and the not-self, and by bringing the not-self down. But this is all normal for humans. Evil requires something more.

3) Evil is compulsive: not just doing something bad once or twice, but surrendering to a pattern of knowingly doing a harmful thing over and over. This compulsion forms a sub-personality that fights back against attempts to dissolve it, and a useful metaphor is demonic possession, although I don't believe in demons as something real outside of humans.

What can we do about evil? Well, there's nothing you can do about the mental state of another person, sometimes not even if they ask for your help. The best you can do is to protect yourself from the effects of that mental state, and not get caught up in the drama.

If you think there might be some evil in you, there are a lot of things you can do, and I think the best word for the antidote to evil is neither good, nor love, but innocence -- not the absence of wrongdoing, but a mental state of receptive friendliness to whatever comes up. Of course innocence makes pain sharper, and threats more dangerous. You don't have to feel that way all the time. It's just a move you can make to break the grip of the compulsion.

July 24. This week, theology, by which I mean, subjects that philosophers avoid while religions tell you what to think. I've been listening to a great lecture series, the Early Middle Ages by Philip Daileader. And I found out there was a guy who thought pretty much what I do, back in the year 400. He was an Irish monk who moved to Rome and called himself Pelagius. In the context of Christianity, he said that there's no original sin, that we're all born clean, and evil is just a bunch of bad habits that humans have fallen into. Jesus didn't save us, but set an example of how to live. We all have free will and personal responsibility for living better, and if we eventually get it right, earth will be a lot like heaven.

Pelagius was strongly opposed by Augustine, who believed that this world is a cesspool of misery, that our only hope for feeling good is in the afterlife, and that we can only get there through the incomprehensible whims of an authoritarian supreme being. He didn't even think you could get to heaven by your own actions, only if God, while fixing the deterministic timeline, decided he liked you. This was too much for Christians at the time, although it was picked up more than a thousand years later by Calvinists, with their idea that you can tell who God already likes, it's the rich people.

If anyone has been done a favor in this world, it's the people with good parents, and I assume that Pelagius had better parents than Augustine. There's an interesting book called The History of Childhood by Lloyd deMause (pronounced deMoss). Through heavy cherry-picking of evidence, he argues that kids have been raised steadily and consistently better over time, all through history and prehistory. I think an honest look at the evidence would show a lot of exceptions and reversals, but still roughly the same thing. We have now reached a point where Pelagius is closer to the mainstream than Augustine, and I would even say that heaven on earth is already here, just subtle and poorly distributed.

July 21. Getting to the bottom of links I've been saving up, Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People. It's a talk from 2016, about the idea that AI will surpass humans and take over the world. The author lays out the premises that lead to this idea, and then a wide variety of arguments for why it won't happen, and why the people who believe it are not trustworthy.

Some good news, California will begin backing intentional burns to control wildfire. Everyone knows this is a good idea, but it's always been difficult to get it through the bureaucracy.

A study about how psilocybin promotes mental health: by making us more willing to face unpleasant experiences.

A body bag can save your life. With more deadly heat waves on the way, it's been discovered that a good way to cure heat stroke is to get in a body bag full of ice water.

And The Banned Barbie Movie That Will Blow Your Mind, Todd Haynes' "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story", animated with Barbie dolls. I had a VHS bootleg of this in the 90s, and watched it a lot of times while showing it, and this description is right on:

The first time you hear about it, you think, "Oh, it's just going to be a spoof of Karen Carpenter," but it's actually a very serious film.... After about 10 minutes the novelty just sort of recedes into the background, and the foreground is incredibly powerful.

My favorite Todd Haynes film is Safe (1995), a strange and ambiguous story of a woman who develops severe chemical sensitivity. On my films page page I write: The atmosphere is a lot like a horror movie, except that every character is trying to be nice, and the horrifying thing is the alienation of modern life.

July 19. More links, starting with a loose end from the last post: Marginalia is another search engine that "focuses on non-commercial content, and attempts to show you sites you perhaps weren't aware of."

Cool video, A bell that rings two notes at once. Basically, anything that rings and is not perfectly symmetrical probably rings multiple notes, depending on where you strike it. And this guy is really good at explaining stuff.

Birds Build Nests From Anti-Bird Spikes, and a non-paywalled archive of a similar article, Birds are using anti-bird spikes to fortify nests. So far it's only the smartest birds, crows and magpies.

Interesting Hacker News thread, Whatever happened to the coming wave of delivery drones? The main answer is that FAA regulations are still catching up, but also, drones don't have a lot of range, they're affected by weather, and they need a place to land. My utopian vision for delivery drones is to make it easy for people to be hermits, like Christopher Knight, whose only problem was that he had to steal food to survive. At this point, the technological challenges are smaller than the legal and cultural challenges, for society to tolerate people having stuff openly delivered to land they're not paying to live on.

The other day I had an email exchange about where to go after the critique of industrial civilization, when you find out how unrealistic it is to live outside the system. My answer is to trace your ideology backward to the original need, the thing you wanted that you weren't getting, and try to get that thing inside the system. For me, I only enjoy life if I have large blocks of time with nothing I'm supposed to be doing.

July 17. A few more notes on posture, but first I want to say how much nicer it is to get feedback on mind-body exercises, than to get feedback on politics and society.

Bob mentions a posture guru named Jonathan FitzGordon. I checked out his stuff and it's funny because he's trying to correct a problem that's the opposite of mine. He says people are leaning back too much and not sticking their butt out enough. My problem is slouching toward a hunchback and not tucking my butt enough. The exercise I mentioned, extreme tucking and extreme raising of the breastbone, is good for pushing back against my specific imbalance. But for actual walking around, I can go a long way with a simple instruction: keep my stomach firm all the time.

While my body can't pull good posture out of a hat, it responds well to attention. If I get conflicting advice, I can try both and notice how they feel. One thing I've noticed is that walking heel-toe is much more efficient while leaning slightly backward, than while leaning forward.

And a couple stray links. Rex sends this article about Emil Cioran and the philosophy of being a loser.

And Wiby is a search engine for classic non-bloated web pages.

July 14. Continuing from the last post, Baltasar comments: "I think that ultimately your bones and muscles already 'know' how to stand up with good posture."

I'm sure a lot of people feel that way, but I don't think it's the bones and muscles. When people have good posture without even trying, it's because a subconscious part of the brain is working it out for them, or it could be nerve cells in the spine or something. But there's a limit to what the subconscious can do, which is why professional athletes are always working on form, and why nobody goes into a yoga class and gets the poses right on the first try.

My subconscious brain just has a lower level of what it can take care of. I can stand and walk without thinking, but to stand straight and walk non-clumsily, my muscles need a lot of coaching from my conscious brain.

More generally, it's tempting to romanticize mindlessness: all you have to do is not think, and your subconscious is magically omniscient. In reality, there's no shortcut for doing hard things. This is a 2017 article that I posted a few months ago, The true expert does not perform in a state of effortless 'flow'. It feels good to shut off your conscious brain and go on instinct, but to perform at the highest level requires a state of critical self-reflection, a careful balance between conscious and subconscious.

Matt comments:

From having studied massage therapy, I think the body adapts to whatever the mind is doing with it, for good or ill. If you sit for hours per day, the body learns that's its default position. The body doesn't "know" how to go from sitting hours per day to perfect posture. The body is a dynamic semi-solid system shaped by whatever is done with it.

In the same way, I think, our brains don't "know" how to concentrate. Our brains are artifacts of how we interact with reality. I do think consciousness itself has a quality of centeredness, but experiencing that centeredness (or connectivity) doesn't necessarily rearrange our brains so that we're perfectly happy.

July 12. After years of struggling with posture, I'm making progress. In Tai Chi, they say to pretend there's a string at the top of your head that your body is hanging from. While that's not unhelpful, my body needs something less suggestive and more concrete. A lot of people say to pull your shoulders back, which is the right kind of instruction but completely wrong.

This is what I'm doing. First, stand normally. Second, tilt your pelvis forward as far as you possibly can. Another way to think of it is to tilt your belt buckle upward. Third, raise your breastbone as high as you possibly can. Now, while maintaining those extreme stretches, walk around the room. I wouldn't do this in public, it would be too silly. It's basically the George Jefferson walk. But as an exercise, it's working better than anything I've tried before. Now I just have to remember to do it more of the time, and work on smoothness.

Related: The belt buckle idea comes from this video on the mechanics of touching your toes.

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