Ran Prieur

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

-James Tiptree Jr

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November 1. Despite Monday's post, I actually do a lot of self-improvement, especially when I'm high. I like to walk around trying different ways of focusing my attention, and the latest thing I've learned is how to dodge people on the sidewalk. This happens a lot in the city: Someone is coming the other way, and it's not totally clear who's going to take which side. I've discovered that if I put the center of my vision somewhere else, and watch them with my peripheral vision, it's a lot easier to get it right.

Why has no one ever told me this? Probably other people are doing it subconsciously. My particular kind of brain damage is that my body has no autopilot. This makes me think back to P.E. class, in which I got no physical education whatsoever. I don't remember a single instruction about how to angle a body part, not even how to flip my wrist to throw harder, something a friend taught me when I was 30 years old, in ten minutes.

Imagine it's your first day of math class. The teacher says, instead of doing boring math instruction, we're just going to go straight to the test. Everyone else in the class is a math genius, and they're all like, woo-hoo, a test! They're breezing through it and you're staring at the symbols completely clueless. At least they're not mean. They watch awkwardly and give you a decent grade for effort. This happens every day for ten years.

Now I walk past homeless people and wonder, how much better would they be doing, if they had got the right kind of basic personal attention when they were five years old, instead of being put through the meat grinder of public schooling? Related: a Hacker News thread on Home schooling.

Anyway, now that I'm old, I have to give a lot of attention to body mechanics to stay ahead of chronic injuries. I finally worked out the formula for good posture, and it's not at all intuitive: firm stomach and tucked chin. The tucked chin forces me to keep my breastbone raised.

I also practice basic moves with my arms or legs, and I've noticed a difference between the two sides of my body. My left side is like a guy in a suit of armor, confident but stiff and clumsy; my right side is like a wounded cat, agile but wavery and hesitant. So I'll alternate a move between the left and right, and try to work out the best of both.

October 30. Three links about doing nothing. The Joy Of Being A Spiritual Loser is a video about how the modern values of productivity and striving have influenced spiritual practices that are supposed to be about relaxing and letting go.

A blog post, Staring at a Wall: Embracing Deliberate Boredom.

And an article about desert island tourism, which sounds like a lot of work and money to get something you could get for free, a quarter mile off the highway in any national forest. People sometimes ask me about Chris McCandless, and while I like the general idea of what he was trying to do, he could have just done it in Montana or something. It was the culture of striving, which he failed to escape, that drove him so deep into Alaska that he couldn't go for help.

On a related subject, I've been thinking about the question: What do Americans boast about? We never boast about being rich, unless it's in the context of boasting about how much poverty we climbed out of. And we don't boast about luck -- if someone says they're lucky, they're being modest, saying their success did not come from being better than other people. I think luck is a real thing that can be cultivated, but when Americans say "I make my own luck," they mean something completely different: that they don't believe in luck so they succeed through hard work.

"Hard work" is the main thing Americans boast about. But who counts as a hard worker? A CEO who does nothing all day but make snap decisions? A fanfic author who puts in a lot of hours for a tiny audience and no money? Surely a full-time janitor is a hard worker. How about someone who spends the same amount of time cleaning stuff, but unobserved and unpaid? What about a chain gang worker, also unpaid, who breaks the biggest rocks? Who's a harder worker, someone who works in a munitions factory, or someone who puts in the same hours building bombs in their garage?

People will answer these questions differently. But I think the general consensus is that "hard work" is a social activity, a performance of obedience to the dominant system.

Another thing Americans boast about is self-discipline, by which they mean internalizing the dominator. "When I was a kid, parents and teachers forced me to do stuff I didn't feel like doing. Now that I'm grown up, I force myself to do stuff I don't feel like doing." I mean, this is a necessary skill to not end up a homeless addict. But I don't think it's something to be proud of, I think it's a tragedy. There are eight million species in the world and only one has this problem, and only recently.

October 25. Continuing on the lack of voluntary mutual aid groups, Devon writes:

I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, a Protestant religion that is more organized than a lot of other denominations.... I can go to almost any church in any state and find someone who has a mutual friend or knows some of the same people I do. Even if I don't find anyone with a mutual acquaintance, I can generally get a free meal, place to stay for the night, help if I needed it.

And Adam writes:

I've been a sober AA member for about eight years, and exactly what you described is a major facet of the program's culture.... I find attending an AA meeting in another location I am visiting to be my favorite experience on trips. The fact that I am an AA gets me immediate welcome in any meeting anywhere. On my recent visit to Ireland, I went to a meeting and was treated like a special guest by strangers. The cool thing to experience is the immediate "tribal" recognition and welcome you get or give, and this transcends so many other cultural or socioeconomic differences that typically separate people.

It's interesting that both of these groups encourage belief in a higher power. I'm reminded of this post from 2019, and the posts that follow, where I wonder why there are no secular monasteries, and grapple with the definition of religion.

The word "religion" points to a lot of different things, and I'm increasingly thinking that one of them is important for our mental health: to see reality as something other than selfish rational agents in a meaningless physical universe. "Secular" is not a clean neutral ground, but an active way of thinking that can be bad for us.

Two books I'm reading right now that are helping me on this subject, and are surprisingly similar despite coming from completely different angles: Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, and Physics as Metaphor by Roger S. Jones.

October 23. Continuing from last week, Matt comments:

I'm sure a lot of communes have failed simply because they try to be all things to all people in some fixed location, and it's rare for humans to meet all their needs through a single community and/or place.

Which made me think about Indigenous Americans and clans. I don't know a lot about the clan system, but I know clans extended beyond tribes and nations. So you could leave your tribe, and maybe nation, and find someone else belonging to the same clan -- and bond with them through that affiliation.

This reminds me of something I read in a zine in the 90s, where a young traveler explained why she dressed like a punk, because anywhere she went, other punks might give her a ride or a place to stay; but if she dressed normally, normal people would not help her.

I wonder if there's anything like that now, where a chosen identity will get you help from strangers. There are immigrant communities, and also communities based on race and gender, but all of those are like tribe/nation, something you're born into, and not something you can choose. I think this lack of voluntary mutual aid groups is peculiar to this fragmented time, and one way or another, there will be more of them.

October 20. Picking up from the last post, it's an interesting question: Our ancestors got all their needs from the local environment for a quarter of a million years, or four billion if you count nonhumans. If we're so much better than them, with all our technology, why can't we do it?

One reason is the landbase. They were nomadic, or lived in extremely fertile areas. Now the land is depleted and carved up, and we're stuck on whatever sketchy acreage we can afford to buy.

At first I was thinking that tribes work better than individuals, and certainly there's less risk with more people. But whatever you think the optimal tribe size is, you can find a back-to-the-land commune of exactly that size that failed. And from the other side, a fascinating article on feral children.

This is a clue to the main reason we can't do it. Humans are extremely adaptable at birth, not so much later, and now we're all adapted for modern society. It's not just that we lack technical survival skills, or that we expect certain comforts. Our whole way of being is tuned to modern living, which is why when we go "back to the land", through a series of completely reasonable decisions, we end up basically as remote suburbanites.

October 18. This blog is definitely slowing down, but today I have a rant on progress. I was reading an article arguing that climate change is not that bad, because it will only slightly reduce global GNP per capita. Of all the ways that human quality of life is commonly measured, nothing is dumber than measuring the amount of money flying around. If you want to read the best thinking on this subject, check out Tools for Conviviality or Toward a History of Needs by Ivan Illich.

Imagine you're living in a little house you built yourself, drinking water out of a stream, and you've got some fruit trees and a garden that provide all your food. Don't actually do this -- for complicated reasons, homesteading is really hard. But we all have ancestors who lived happily on zero money. And then someone comes along and dams the stream and sells you the water in bottles refined from oil drilled by wrecking your garden. Your trees are cut into lumber, you have to work in a terrible factory to survive -- and every one of these changes grows the money economy, by gobbling up stuff formerly outside the money economy.

This is the history of colonialism everywhere. It's true that rising GDP is good for the third world. But before people can be made happy by money, they first have to be made miserable by destroying their ability to live without money.

Money is not the root of all evil. Extending the metaphor, if there is a tree of all evil, its roots go much deeper. But money is definitely on that tree. It's a way to make people do stuff they would not do except for the money, which they turn around and spend to make other people do stuff they would not do except for the money, in a giant global carnival of extrinsic reward.

The world is currently going to hell, unseen by economists, because the void in intrinsic reward is being filled by tribalism and opioids. I should also say, my life is really good right now. But I understand that this is because of luck, and if tomorrow I get caught up in some disaster, I'll know why.

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. 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 12-13. I've 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."

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. 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."

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