Ran Prieur

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

-James Tiptree Jr

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September 4. For Labor Day, a repost from exactly six years ago:

Imagine you live in a world where money is completely disconnected from work. Not only is there an unconditional minimum income, there's also a maximum income -- and they're the same! Corporate executives, sled dog racers, insurance agents, and people who just watch TV all day, all make the same amount of money.

In that world, what would you do with your time?

And how similar is that to what you actually do with your time?

To the extent that those things are the same, you're successful -- even if you're poor. To the extent that they're different, your quality of life is being constrained by cultural assumptions and economic rules that tie activity to money.

You've all seen that political grid, where one axis is social freedom and the other is economic freedom. That's always rubbed me the wrong way, and now I can say why: because it has economic freedom exactly backwards, defining it as the right to trade your labor for money, even if it's something you wouldn't do if not for the money, and then turn around and trade your money for the labor of others, even if they're only doing it for the money. That's not people being free -- it's money being free to control us.

In a value system that puts quality of life first, economic freedom is not freedom of money but freedom from money, and the more disconnected money is from activity, the more free we are.

September 1. Three trippy links for the weekend, starting with a scientific article. Insular Stimulation Produces Mental Clarity and Bliss:

For the first time, an ecstatic aura has been evoked through the electrical stimulation of the dorsal anterior insula during presurgical invasive intracerebral monitoring in a patient who did not suffer from an ecstatic form of epilepsy.
On the MEQ‐30 questionnaire, completed to describe the ecstatic symptoms experienced during the AI3‐4 stimulations, the patient had a total score of 130 of 150 points... which is considered a "complete" mystical experience.

From the Psychonaut subreddit, What's the most interesting thing to happen to you on a psychedelic? Of course selection bias is going to make psychedelics seem more reliably mind-blowing than they really are. This whole thread is better than my answer, which would be sensing the personalities of trees.

And from Ask Old People, What coincidence has occurred in your life that pretty much convinced you that we are living in the matrix? My explanation for all this stuff is simply that the fundamental unit of reality is the first person perspective. Each of us is dreaming the world on the fly, and we've dreamed up a physical universe as one way to be characters in each others' stories; but it's not seamless and it's not the only way.

August 30. Lately I've been playing with this new AI Human Generator. The Hacker News comment thread is mainly about how shitty the images are, and how it seems optimized for porn. But I approach it like a game, plugging in different parameters and seeing what comes out. I haven't had this kind of fun since Picbreeder. You can't combine two images, but what you can do is follow evolutionary threads. If you download an image, that long sequence of characters at the end of the filename can be pasted into the URL, so you can revisit any image you've saved, and take it in different directions. There are a ton of options for ethnicity, and I'm looking forward to some future generator with that many options for facial expression.

New subject, still reality creation. On a recommendation from the subreddit, I bought a physical copy of the book Top 10 Games You Can Play in Your Head, by Yourself. It seems to be a goofy daydreaming manual, for kids, from the late 1980s, when really it's a potent adult spirituality book from 2019. From the introduction:

One of the many tasks required of you throughout this book is fragmenting your mind to create opposing selves within yourself. This is not as daunting as it may sound. You do it every day. Consider that you shape shift as you walk though the halls of your school, shifting from child to scholar to athlete to hungry beast as the bell tolls.

Or, if you are an adult who attempts to function as a cog in the blood-soaked machine we call the American Dream, consider how you swallow your own soul as you daily enter the factory where you go to die, piece by piece, five for every seven days.

Perhaps you have heard this spoken in other ways. The id and the ego and the superego; the conscious and the subconscious; the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. You may not know it, but that impulsive voice in your head -- the one that tells you to throw rocks out your bedroom window at cars passing by -- is one of the many fragments of your own personality and one that will be a great ally in the games to come.

August 28. Still not feeling smart this week, so I'll post some ecology links, starting with a paywalled article, Tiny Forests With Big Benefits. Here's a non-paywalled archive:

Dr. Miyawaki's prescription involves intense soil restoration and planting many native flora close together. Multiple layers are sown - from shrub to canopy - in a dense arrangement of about three to five plantings per square meter. The plants compete for resources as they race toward the sun, while underground bacteria and fungal communities thrive. Where a natural forest could take at least a century to mature, Miyawaki forests take just a few decades, proponents say.

Finding Hope In The Dark Power Of Fungus is about using fungi to clean toxic sites. It's working well in the laboratory, but they haven't quite figured out how to make it work on a large scale.

Why Bumblebees Love Cats and Other Beautiful Relationships. Related: Do Insects Feel Joy and Pain?

August 24. This Can't Go On is an argument that economic growth can't continue at the present rate. This article could have been written 20 years ago, and given what's happened in the last 20 years, this is my prediction. First, there is no limit to how much the economy can grow by expanding the definition of "growth" to include more and more vaporous things. Second, actual human prosperity will continue to decline, except for the very rich. At some point in the future, the Dow Jones will be ten times higher than it is now, and there will be ten times as many homeless people.

And two Reddit threads. Oddly both of them are marked as "removed", which means they don't show up on Reddit but you can still link to them. I don't know if it's Reddit's policy now to remove all threads that are more than a couple days old, or just the interesting ones. What's the one thing that makes you think "I'm with the boomers on this one?"

And Men who play as women in video games, why?

August 22. Amsterdam to use "noise cameras" against too loud cars. That link goes to the Hacker News comment thread, which is mainly a discussion of the psychology of wanting your car to be louder. Some of the comments say it's "just" to feel powerful, as if we all understand what that means, but "power" is a strange and complex thing. As I said in my July 26 post about evil:

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.

What's the difference between a graffiti artist and a graffiti tagger? The artist is thinking, "I'm going to create something beautiful and maybe people will look at it and feel good." The tagger is thinking, "Read my name, bitch!" Nobody has to think like that. It's like a disease that possesses people. When I see an evil person, I try to remind myself that inside is a good person who let themselves be hijacked. You can't get mad at the good person inside, nor can you get mad at the evil behavior, which is as mindless as a hiccup.

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.

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