Ran Prieur

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

-James Tiptree Jr

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October 13. A few notes from Port Townsend. The other night we went to see our first theater movie since before Covid, and there's a common assumption that the main difference between theater and home is the size of the screen. Personally, if the movie is any good I get so absorbed that I lose track of the context. I think the main difference, by far, is that a theater movie can't be paused. That gives the show an element of ritual and makes it more immersive.

Today we went on a whale watch cruise, a three hour tour on Friday the 13th with a new captain on his first run. I was so disappointed that we didn't end up on Gilligan's island. Anyway, when we found the whales, there were several other boats gathered around, maybe 200 humans who paid a lot to watch five orcas cavort. We've come a long way in a short time from when humans would be trying to kill or capture the whales.

At the same time, the local islands were packed with houses so new that the streets didn't show up on google maps. While human ecological consciousness is higher than ever, so is our ecological footprint.

A phrase I hear a lot lately is "retail therapy". For me that means, spending money is so painful that I have to think about my own death to make it tolerable. I think about the Hieronymus Bosch painting, Death and the Miser, and the Talking Heads line, "Into the blue again, after the money's gone".

October 8. This week I'll be in Port Townsend without my laptop, so little or no posting. I wrote this before, but can't find it in the archives, a thought about cults. Post-apocalypse fiction is full of cults, as if the ruins of a complex society are fertile ground for charismatic leaders and fanatical followers with crazy beliefs.

That fertile ground is right now, during a still-standing complex society that is losing the ability to motivate its citizens. Fanaticism fills the void of meaning. If a society gets to the point where it can't feed its citizens, that's worse, but the dangerous groups will be less culty and more pragmatic, less wild-eyed and more steely-eyed.

New subject: What Plants Are Saying About Us, a careful argument that plants are intelligent without brains:

If cognition is embodied, extended, embedded, enactive, and ecological, then what we call the mind is not in the brain. It is the body's active engagement with the world, made not of neural firings alone but of sensorimotor loops that run through the brain, body, and environment. In other words, the mind is not in the head.
"Words like cognition, memory, attention, or consciousness -- those words for me are properly applied to the whole organism. It's the whole organism that's conscious, not the brain that's conscious. It's the whole organism that attends or remembers. The brain makes animal cognition possible, it facilitates and enables it, but it's not the location of it."

October 5. When something is too hard, the obvious move is to make it easier. But sometimes it works to make it harder, if that difficulty unlocks your magic powers.

Every couple weeks I bicycle up Pine Street, from downtown to the top of Capitol Hill, to get groceries. Because my bike is a singlepeed, and I'm not athletic, I only ride it up the least steep streets, and otherwise push it.

On top of that, now I've got a sore quadriceps tendon, the thingy just above your kneecap. To not re-injure it, I can't put any weight on my right leg when it's more than a little bent. (We're all more than a little bent.) On a bicycle, that means my right leg is only good for one shove at the bottom of each stroke, while my left leg has to work twice as hard. It turns out, exactly twice as hard, because yesterday I rode up steeper streets than before the injury.

Back to my favorite subject lately, better living through altered states of consciousness, another thread on r/psychonaut, What was the most profound insight you learned on psychedelics that helped you in your life? Lots of good stuff, including a surprising interpretation of "life is the trip": that the things you do to make a trip better, like eating well and avoiding stress, are the same things you do to make life better.

Psychonauts are always talking about the importance of love, with little explanation beyond that vague and non-controversial word, and just the word you'd expect from the intersection of feeling good and "we are all one." But this comment by logicalmaniak explains it really well:

Like, what's a game of football? Just humans chasing a bag of air. It's nothing at all. But what's a game of football with your mates? It's communion, bonding, positive competition, fun, and so on. The love makes the not real thing a vehicle for transmitting the real thing.

October 2. Not feeling smart this week, or maybe just less interested in words. Here's a fun thread on Ask Old People about Donald Trump in the 80s.

Another negative link, Do Not Put Plastic in the Microwave, because it releases microplastics.

Another health link, Individuals drinking 2-3 cups of coffee per day have the lowest risk of depression and anxiety. I wonder about causation vs correlation, because 2-3 cups seems pretty normal, with weird people drinking more or less, and also being more prone to depression and anxiety.

A nice thread on r/psychonaut about talking to plants. I don't see how plants could use language, but I sometimes get a sense that trees are superior beings who only show us a narrow slice of what they really are.

And a thoughtful blog post, It's okay to make something nobody wants. "If everyone made things they really liked, we'd have a lot more cool stuff."

September 29. Continuing from the last post: Raleigh mentions that there's an audio version of True Hallucinations on YouTube, with some stuff that's not in the book, and of course Terence McKenna's wonderful speaking style. Personally, I quit the book less than halfway through. It's great for what it is: young people doing lots of drugs, getting goggle-eyed about the nature of reality, and talking about it with fancy language. I've explored woo-woo stuff long enough to know that small impossible things happen all the time, but they never lead to a shake-up of consensus. And I have no patience for a nine hour talk, but I love this nine minute bit: Terence McKenna Big Bird, which syncs his best one-liners with the giant muppet.

While I'm on the subject of drugs, I can report that I got a practical benefit from cannabis in silent darkness. On those trips, I noticed subtle catches in my breath, so I focused on cleaning them up, and now my breathing is smoother than it's ever been. More generally, weed is like a step ladder to let me reach a higher shelf of consciousness. I can't stay up there all the time, and I've spent the last few years experimenting to see how much I can get away with before the next trip is not beneficial. My ceiling seems to be around five sessions a week.

On some of those sessions, while going for walks or just looking out the window at the city while listening to certain music, I've achieved a mental state in which I can feel the preciousness of every moment. Now that I know what it's like, I can get there more easily, and even without weed, I can get closer than I could before.

I'm sure this has also been helped by the practice of being present, and I've mentioned some tricks in other posts: Imagine that I'm the POV of a video, or that I'm testing a super-realistic VR rig, or that I just noticed I'm dreaming. But the simplest trick is just to repeatedly tell myself what psychonauts often report: that only this moment is real.

September 27. On the subject of being present interfering with blogging, Mendicant comments:

The more I practice mindfulness, which really is about collapsing your awareness down into this very experience, the less I find I need to entertain my mind by thinking up stuff. In fact, they're kind of mutually exclusive.

Also, I had to quit going into silent darkness when I'm high. It's just too good. I don't want the rest of my life to have to compete with that. The scary thing is, how much worse is heroin? Anyway, my new rule is thirty minutes of silent darkness sober, and then I can get high and go for a walk, or write, or stretch, anything to hold off the sirens of the void.

I'm reading Terence McKenna's True Hallucinations, the fun story of how he and his friends, in 1971, went to a paradise village in South America and did lots of psychedelics. It's full of language like this:

These had become the compass and the vehicle of our quest: the rose window topologies of the galacterian beehives of the di-methyltryptamine flash, that nexus of cheap talk and formal mathematics where wishes became horses and everybody got to ride.

I think it's strange that they always trip at night, and he never mentions the likely benefit, that the drugs stack with the trippy effects of sleep deprivation. Once in college I stayed up all night finishing a computer program, and I started to hear the code in the voice of the maid from the Jeffersons. It was not worth it. Sleep deprivation is terrible, which is why I always trip early in the day so I can be mostly recovered by bedtime.

September 25. I don't know if it's causal or coincidental, but at the same time that I'm getting better at being fully present in each moment, I'm getting less inspiration for writing. Here's a repost from August 28, 2007:

On my last trip to the land I noticed something: Getting into a groove of mindless repetitive work is centering. If you're feeling terrible, it makes you feel pretty good; if you're feeling super-hyped, it makes you feel pretty good. So what happens when an entire society has all mindless repetitive work done by machines? Now, instead of working wood with hand tools, which is meditative, we do it with power tools, which is stressful because you can kill yourself at any moment. It's the same with driving instead of walking.

We have made "progress" according to one narrow equation: more transformation of the world per human attention. In many other ways, machine power is a serious misstep. Of course it consumes more actual energy, which comes from hidden unsustainable sources. Also, more transformation per attention means more stress, and more and bigger mistakes. And finally, without the centering effect of meditative physical work, depressed people stay depressed and fanatical people stay fanatical, all of them pushing us toward apocalypse.

September 22. A personal note. My girlfriend has become obsessed with golf, so I'm playing golf now. I still have more fun getting high in silent darkness, but the golf community is friendly and conscientious, and it's good for me to practice a whole new set of difficult mind-body skills.

We're listening to a podcast called Chasing Scratch, in which two guys who both talk like Ron Swanson spend year after year down the rabbit hole of buying clubs and reinventing their swings, trying to get to zero handicap. In one episode, they talk to a coach named Adam Young. He asks his students, what are the basics of good form? Then whatever they say, he does the opposite, and still hits one great shot after another. His point is that form is overrated, and the important thing is how exactly the club face contacts the ball. To get better at that skill, he has an interesting idea: While practicing, instead of trying to hit the ball in the center of the club face every time, try to intentionally slightly miss in specific ways. This has been tested and proven to work in developing precision.

So last night at the driving range, that's what I worked on, while still ironing out basics, like loosening my grip, and not raising my body on the backswing. My biggest breakthrough came a couple weeks ago, by specifically doing something they say not to do. As a poor intuitive athlete, I'm always having to figure stuff out with my head, that other people are doing with their bodies and don't know they're doing. They say not to flip your wrists, because if you do that in the middle of hitting the ball, it creates chaos. But after being told I was over-rotating, over-swinging, and still lacking power, I started consciously generating power with my wrists on the downstroke, and suddenly the balls went a lot farther.

September 18. I'm mostly taking the week off. But last night I went to see John Cooper Clarke, and if you ever get a chance to see him, I can't think of a rock star or stand up comic who puts on a better show at his age. Here's a video of him performing Evidently Chickentown eleven years ago, and he hasn't lost a step.

I also think he wrote the best poem of the last 80 years, Valley of the Lost Women. The theme is the human attempt to create utopia, and how it's bland and unsatisfying, and comes unraveled.

September 15. Stray links. On a tangent from sparrows in China, something similar happened with Vultures in India, except they were killed accidentally by a cattle drug.

Without vultures, carcasses attracted feral dogs and rats. Not only do these animals carry rabies and other diseases that threaten humans, they are far less efficient at finishing off carrion. The rotting remains they left behind were full of pathogens that then spread to drinking water.... The authors estimated that, between 2000 and 2005, the loss of vultures caused 500,000 additional human deaths.

A surprising psychology article about nostalgia. "Contrary to the belief that nostalgia primarily revolves around the distant past, the results suggest that individuals are experiencing nostalgia for time periods that are relatively recent."

Some happy local news, Artist's giant troll sculptures bring whimsy to Seattle-area woods

And a thread from r/Psychonaut, What's a lesson that you were taught while on psychedelics? The only one I've received personally is "Trees. Just trees, man." But this one is nice:

On DMT I met an entity. It emerged from the wall opposite me, an agender being made of light. In a moment outside of time I asked without language all the questions I had about life, the universe, and meaning. Its response to every question was the same: "It doesn't matter. Look around you. Isn't it beautiful?"

September 13. Continuing on the subject of wisdom, I wrote that neither wise people, nor unwise people, will stand up and say "I am wise." Simon comments, "Plenty of unwise people claim common sense is on their side, though." That's a great point, and that's why I don't think common sense is a real thing. There isn't less common sense than there used to be -- there never was any. When people talk about "common sense", they mean other people sharing their implicit biases. If there seems to be less common sense, it's because implicit biases are getting more diverse.

And Matt takes a shot at defining wisdom:

In the 1950s, Communist China -- in trying to save grain -- began a campaign against sparrows. It was nominally successful: they killed millions of sparrows and saved tons of rice. But they inadvertently triggered years of famine, because sparrows don't only eat rice. They also eat bugs.

We could call their campaign "stupid," but it was observant (sparrows are eating our rice), and it was backed by efforts in mathematics (they measured how much rice each sparrow was eating on average, and calculated the potential savings in tons of rice if sparrows were removed).

Maybe the divide between intelligence and wisdom can be described as the difference between a parts approach and a holistic approach. The Chinese were smart (for a while), but not wise.

I'm thinking about John Vervaeke's concept of the four kinds of knowing, which I summarized in this post. What we call intelligence is about propositional knowing: knowing what statements are true and false, and how to derive true statements from other true statements.

Imagine some future Chinese utopia wants to design a test, such that anyone who passes it would not make that mistake with the sparrows. You couldn't just give them a math problem about sparrows eating bugs, because the real problem is looking for data in a direction that you don't know about. The skill you want people to learn is to disconnect their propositional mind from whatever framework it's in, so they can look outside it.

This reminds me of a bit from James Carse's book Finite and Infinite Games: "Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries." Also, from chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching (Ellen Chen translation): "From knowing to not knowing, this is superior. From not knowing to knowing, this is sickness."

September 12. My new favorite blogger is Skunk Ledger. From two weeks ago, a thoughtful post about Scenes and Villages as two different kinds of communities. "I suspect great cities have both scenes and villages; scenes as exports, villages to keep the city human and anchor it in time, beyond the volatile epicycles of scenes."

And from two days ago, Redemption is a bit of short fiction inspired by a glib quote about how telling simple stories lowers your IQ. The theme is the conflict between doing stuff with your brain that makes people respect your intelligence, and doing stuff that you enjoy.

My serious take on the same quote is that IQ is a simple story. People use those two letters to point to anything a brain might be good at, when actual IQ tests measure a very specific thing. Someone gave western intelligence tests to African villagers, and they had a whole different framework. We would match a broom to a mop, because they serve the same function. They would match a broom to a house, because you sweep out the house.

I've also been thinking about the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Wisdom is one of those things that everyone believes in, even though nobody can define it -- let alone test for it. And it occurs to me: both smart people and stupid people will stand up and say, "I am smart." But neither wise people, nor unwise people, will stand up and say "I am wise."

Loosely related: a Hacker News thread, What is an emotion? Whatever they are, emotions are squarely in the grey area between body and cognition.

September 8. Some medical knowledge from Reddit: Your calf muscles act as a pump for your lymph fluid, "which is basically the garbage pick-up and immunity doordash of your body." A few of the comments mention something I thought immediately: Restless legs syndrome is my body trying to help me, because every night I have to do a few hundred calf muscle pumps before I can fall asleep.

Another medical link, a video: Could the sun be good for your heart? When that speech became famous, that the one thing we can be sure about is sunscreen, I knew at the very least it would turn out that sunscreen is not something we can be sure about.

And some music for the weekend. Over on my songs and playlists page I've added a new Spotify disco playlist. I'm not a big fan of disco, but I found almost an hour of stuff that I continue to enjoy listening to, and my new favorite disco song is Amii Stewart's Knock On Wood.

I've also been listening to this 2021 jangle pop album, Modern Fiction by Ducks Ltd. And this is a cool page, A Guide to Alternate Tunings on Bandcamp.

September 6. Thanks Karthik for sending this video, The Art of Life. It's about Michael Behrens, who is basically the Unabomber's good twin. He was a math genius who took the position vacated by Ted Kaczynski at Berkeley, and later built a house on primitive land. He has lots of cool stuff to say, but don't romanticize his lifestyle too much -- if he got his food in any other way than driving into town, they would have shown it.

It's funny, for someone who talks about the value of doing nothing, he's very good at doing something, or he wouldn't have cleared that land and built that house. In my experience, western Buddhists are naturally busy people who are drawn to Buddhism to keep themselves in balance.

Some people think my values have changed because I no longer write about the critique of civilization or try to live outside it. Those were both spinoffs of my number one value, which has not changed since I was five years old: I love giant blocks of time with nothing I'm supposed to be doing. Some people are horrified by the thought that after death, it's just your consciousness floating in the void. I'd be like, free at last!

Seriously, my new favorite thing to do when I'm high, is silent darkness. The ringing in my ears, and the dim shapes on the backs of my eyelids, are so interesting that I keep forgetting to focus on my breathing. When I do, I've noticed a subtle catch in my throat at the top and bottom of every breath, and I've been working on cleaning it up, which is hard because it's halfway buried in involuntary.

I'm not claiming causality, but at the same time that I've been doing this, I've been getting better at being present in each moment. Buddhists talk about "craving", but I didn't really get it until I got down to the micro scale. I was watching soccer and noticed the difference between watching the player kick the ball, and hoping for some result of that kicking.

One of my favorite lyrics, from Camper Van Beethoven's Lulu Land, is "How can you lose when you choose what you feel?" That sounds like a magic power, but again, the key is the micro scale. When something happens, you have a habit of how it's supposed to make you feel, but if you can make yourself small enough in time, you can cut that habit off and do something different.

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. 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.

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 / August