Ran Prieur

"I was a peripheral visionary. I could see the future, but only way off to the side."

-Steven Wright

old stuff



about me

songs and playlists

search this site

Creative Commons License

February 12. Psychology links. Surprising link between time perception and wound healing revealed: "By manipulating participants' sense of how much time had passed, researchers found that wounds healed faster when people believed more time had elapsed, suggesting a powerful link between our minds and our physical health."

Did the ancient Greeks and Romans experience Alzheimer's? A lot less than we do, which suggests that "dementias are diseases of modern environments and lifestyles, with sedentary behavior and exposure to air pollution largely to blame."

Depressed individuals tend to avoid experiencing positive emotions. I'm sure if you asked depressed people, they would say they are not doing this. So they're doing it subconsciously, and they can't fix it until they bring their awareness to that level -- which must be really hard or we'd be a lot happier.

The Psychedelic Experience Scale has been updated to add some new stuff, including "paradoxicality":

This dimension captures experiences where conventional logic fails, and the individual confronts the limits of rational thought, diving into a realm where opposites coexist. Items within this subscale relate to experiences of identity loss, the dissolution of temporal boundaries, and the merging of self with the environment.

The article also mentions that "transcendence might not inherently be a part of the mystical experience, but might be more an experience in its own right." This totally fits with something I just read in Morris Berman's book Wandering God, that paradoxicality (he calls it paradox) is a feature of horizontal nomadic spirituality, and transcendence is a feature of the vertical spirituality of settled cultures.

February 10. Just saw a great line on the psychonaut subreddit: "Happy people use drugs. Drugs use sad people." It reminds me of that line from the Gospel of Thomas: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man."

February 8. Neal Stephenson's Most Stunning Prediction is an interview about The Diamond Age and chatbots. He mentions that AI will be bad for artists, and this blog post (thanks Gabriel) goes full doom about AI and the end of art, concluding that "For writers, the value of producing text will go to zero."

That's funny, because for me, the value of producing text is the intrinsic pleasure of writing stuff and sharing it with a small audience, and that will not be changed in the slightest by AI. He's talking about the financial value, and he's right. AI is driving a wedge between human creativity and capitalism. From now on, we're all Vincent Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson.

Whether this causes a creative dark age, or a creative golden age, depends on whether we get an unconditional basic income. Without it, everybody who needs to make a living will be forced to do something other than writing or illustrating -- or any other job that can be done by machines. It's going to be pretty grim. With a UBI, the human creative process will be more free than it's ever been -- because before money it was constrained by local culture.

Even better than a UBI would be making all necessities free at point of use, so that it would be realistic to live without money. That's not going to happen any time soon, but here's a fitting article recently posted to the subreddit: Isolated Indigenous people as happy as wealthy western peers. I'll repeat my comment there: Money only buys happiness after the ability to be happy without money has been destroyed.

February 5. Continuing from last week, I don't expect my AI game utopia to actually happen. The limiting factor is human boredom, and current games already have more than enough content for most players. What I really want is an environment, real or artificial, that continues to generate the feel of a great game. While AI could do that in theory, humans are now in a rare and strange position, in which we're using loads of resources to make artificial worlds for our eyes and ears and fingers, while our bodies sit cramped and dormant in a physical world that feels increasingly meaningless. We could do full-body VR, but that's just throwing more resources down a path that doesn't come out anywhere.

I don't want to call it a dead end, because we learn stuff from virtual worlds, about how we want the real world to be. Gaming is the closest I get, other than drugs, to feeling at home in a living world. And paradoxically, I feel most present in my body when I pretend I'm testing out a game avatar.

Zooming out to metaphysics, suppose there's something like reincarnation. Given how much fun wild animals are having, why would anyone want to be human? I can think of two reasons. First is the enormous variation in human experience. Being a dolphin is pretty much like being any other dolphin. But as a human, you could be anything from a Roman slave to a Medieval serf to a modern tech worker. I wonder if being a modern human is the many-lives equivalent of going to Disneyland. It's super-crowded, and more annoying than fun, but it's such a peculiar spectacle that everyone has to do it.

The other reason is imagination. Dogs can dream about chasing squirrels, and elephants probably have awesome dreams about elephant-like things. But humans, while fully awake, can go inside our heads and do dog things, or elephant things, or be wizards or space pirates, or do crazy stuff that no one ever thought of until this moment. And through storytelling and later books and now video games, we can share our worlds of imagination with other people. And if there is a more-real world outside this world, then maybe we're learning stuff here, about how we want that world to be.

February 1. I don't know if my brain is resting this week, or if it's being numbed by playing Fallout New Vegas. I don't like the game enough to play it all the way through, but it's fun to enter that mind space, and now I'm wondering if video games are influencing popular philosophy. For example, I'm about to "intercept" the Great Khans at Boulder City, but I know that whatever time I happen to get there will be exactly the right time, because the game is coded according to relationships rather than timetables -- not unlike our own synchronicity. Games are making it easier for us to imagine reality, not as a fixed physical world, but as a vaporous potential that gets filled in according to how we look at it.

And Fallout isn't even procedurally generated. This is my greatest hope for AI. Imagine your favorite open world game, with no borders, just more of the same stuff, forever. The next challenge would be multiplayer, and I imagine a larger system that could take your choices in your game, and translate them into someone else's game to make it more real. So if I'm buying a sword in Hyrule, and you're selling a gun in Vice City, with a few adjustments, we could be each other's NPCs. Now imagine taking that farther, as far as it could go, and it's basically what psychonauts say we already have, a shared world that somehow puts each person at the very center.

It's too bad that musical taste is so subjective, because out of all the little projects I work on, the one where I have the most fun is making playlists. I'll kick an idea around for a while, and then at some point I get in full obsession mode, downloading songs, sorting them with Mp3tag, listening and cutting and resorting, and then as the final step, I post it to Spotify. It seems like most people use Spotify as a storage medium, so their playlist for a given category has every song they might ever want to hear. Because I do storage on my laptop, I can use Spotify for careful lists under two hours. My latest is Classic Rock Deep Tracks, with three songs each by Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Dire Straits, and two each by Queen, The Ramones, The Police, Violent Femmes, and Nirvana. I think out of all my lists, this one has the best transitions.

January 29. Four doom links, two cultural and two technological.

An ominous Reddit comment about churches going political in a bad way.

And a frightening thread, What are some mysterious, cult-like, bad-vibes towns across the USA?

A Twitter thread, "Unfortunately, a recent software update was not successful. Your vehicle cannot be driven."

And a short blog post, Digital Books wear out faster than Physical Books

January 26. About six weeks ago I did an email interview for Manuel Moreale's People and Blogs. It was a good opportunity to gather my thoughts and put together some words about myself and this blog, and it's just been posted: P&B: Ran Prieur. Thanks Manu!

Asking a writer where ideas come from, is like asking a sailor where the wind comes from. If your sails are working, the wind is just there. So in terms of the work I put into writing, getting ideas is zero percent. Ten percent is figuring out how to word it. And ninety percent is figuring out how to order it. Even non-fiction has to be written like a story, where one idea flows into the next.

One more personal insight. From playing piano, I've identified five different possible sources for what your fingers are doing on the keys. If you're reading music, your eyes are telling your fingers what to do. If you're improvising, your ears are doing it. If you're playing exercises, it's your brain. If you're playing a song from memory, it's also your brain, but a different function, plus some muscle memory. And the fifth one, after years of playing, I only noticed this week. Your fingers can direct themselves, based on what feels good for your fingers, with total indifference to the notes.

I suppose this is something that people with high body intelligence take for granted: that the body might volunteer helpful movements on its own, instead of just waiting for instructions from the head. I've only had the slightest taste of that, while doing improvisational stretching on cannabis. But it's something I can continue to work on.

January 23. Stray links. Goblin mode was the Oxford 2022 word of the year. In the wake of Covid, "it captured the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to 'normal life', or rebelled against the increasingly unattainable aesthetic standards and unsustainable lifestyles exhibited on social media."

Related, from Ask Old People, an inspiring and sometimes troubling thread about informal work environments. I don't know what happened to make workplaces so universally un-fun, but it's a big part of why no one wants to work anymore.

More doom, What is Wirth's Law? "Software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware becomes faster."

More doom, Trains were designed to break down after third-party repairs, as capitalism eats itself. The other day I saw a good metaphor for what "late stage capitalism" means. It's like in a game of Monopoly, where it's obvious who's going to win, but you still have to grind through the details of giving them all your money.

And something nice. Sounds of the Forest is a world map where you can click in hundreds of places and hear recordings of the wonderful non-human-made world.

January 22. Something I've never done on this blog, a bunch of movie reviews, all from 2023, listed from worst to best:

4/10 Oppenheimer. Someone could have made a good film about just the Manhattan Project. Instead, Christopher Nolan spends three hours trying to tick every box of Oppenheimer's life, and ends up ticking most of them badly. This film is both boring and rushed, with pacing like a washboard road, one jarring cut after another. The science, the politics, and the people are all dumbed down to Hollywood boilerplate. Every point it makes is noncontroversial and made in an obvious way. There's no playfulness whatsoever, and the music is too loud. The only great bits are the detonation of the bomb, and Gary Oldman's performance as Harry Truman.

6/10 Saltburn. A guy goes to stay with some very rich people, with tantalizing possibilities. The whole middle of the film is a sharp comedy of manners and also suspenseful near-horror. It reminded me of Get Out, and also The Draughtsman's Contract. The writer-director, Emerald Fennell, comes from the British upper class and it shows. But when she tries to shift gears into another kind of movie, she crashes and burns. Out of her depth, she keeps jumping sharks, and I'm angry at how this promising film became so fucking stupid. Spoiler: to see this done right in a serious way, see Match Point. To see it done right in a weird way, see Pasolini's Teorema.

7/10 Barbie. It's as colorful and trippy as I hoped it would be, with lots of clever and surprising details. But the whole second half is uninspired. I think the mistake was making it too easy to travel between Barbieland and our world. Once that travel is taken for granted, the dream engine runs out of steam, and the story is ho-hum. Still a lot of fun.

8/10 Killers of the Flower Moon. This is not my kind of thing, but I'll say this for Martin Scorsese, he's brilliant at pacing. Three hours of a movie I wasn't into, and it wasn't ever painful (like Oppenheimer) but almost meditative. Also, it's being classified as a western, but this is 100% a gangster movie. If Scorsese did Toy Story, the toys would all be doing crimes and eventually double-crossing each other and getting killed or sent to toy prison.

8/10 Dream Scenario. If I'm seeing a movie about weird dreams, I want to be increasingly tripped out by not knowing whether scenes are dreams or real, and I want the plot to unfold into a larger story in which the dreams make sense. The best example is Paprika (2009). This is not that kind of movie. This is a low-key character-based comedy-drama that happens to be about dreams. Nicolas Cage is great as always, as a bland, meek, self-centered professor, who reacts in all kinds of interesting ways to other people treating him differently because of what they've dreamed him doing. It's a feast of subtext, awkwardness, and human authenticity.

10/10 Poor Things. Not only the film of the year, this is the best film to come out of Hollywood since the 1990s. Everything about it, from story to set design to dialogue, is bizarre and courageous. Emma Stone is perfect as basically steampunk bride of Frankenstein, honest and innocent, but fearless and cool-headed while everyone tries to use her for their own purposes. Mark Ruffalo has great fun playing a cad, and it's refreshing that the characters are all completely up front about their motivations. Also, not since John Waters' Desperate Living has a film had so many sex acts, while being completely unsexy.

January 20. I was planning to do a follow-up about how modern people give emotional value to objects, but a lot of the bases have been covered by this subreddit post, The importance of everyday objects: from ordinary sentimental value, to the deeply embodied value of a much-played guitar, to hoarders who put value on everything.

I would add, because our culture is so atomized, our "sentimental value" is highly specific to each person and object. In a more integrated culture, the feeling-value of different objects would tend to dovetail into a larger shared meaning. Like your gnome and my knife would be part of the same mythos.

January 18. Today's subject, AI, starting with a comment from Matt:

I saw a Mastodon post recently about why AI generated art should neither be considered "AI" nor "art." They said it's obvious that there's no intelligence behind the programs when you simply ask it to generate art for which it has no reference points -- that is, no database of matching images. It can easily generate fantasy images of dragons and elves because those things are popular tropes and plenty of stock images exist for them, conveniently labeled. But once you ask it to generate an image of anything without a past, then its attempts are crude, unconvincing, and even nightmarish.

Of all the reductionist statements I've seen about AI, the one I've found most useful came from a Hacker News thread about ChatGPT: "It's just a big Mad Lib engine." AI takes words and pictures, and jumbles them up and puts them together in intelligible ways. It's not a way of creating stuff, but a way of exploring and remixing stuff that humans have already done. So it's basically the same thing the internet was already doing, except instead of searching the internet for a whole human-made thing that you're interested in, you can have the AI do a Frankenstein of a million human-made things.

I think chatbots and image bots are not on the verge of a world-changing breakthrough, but already into diminishing returns, and more processing power will only make them do the same thing more smoothly. More generally, following Jerry Mander's book In the Absence of the Sacred (1991), I think the best biological metaphor for human technology is not evolution but inbreeding: We are going deeper and deeper into a world of our own creation. This can lead to insight, and I'm hopeful about therapy bots -- but it can also lead to madness.

If any new technology leads to human transcendence, it will be one that enhances our perception of the living non-human world, and thereby turns our attention outward in a way that was not available to our ancestors.

One more comment from Matt:

It's also clear what's going on with AI through the repeated use of one term: "content." That word has slipped into our vocabulary and become normal, but if you step back, you can see it's an oddly capitalist term. It's what AI companies see themselves as providing. Content. As if this were something that needs to be continually supplied.

I've never, as a writer, thought of myself as a "content creator," but I feel as if I'm seeing that label be self-applied more and more. For me, the term "content" becomes ridiculous when I apply it to older art. Is Pride and Prejudice something called content? Is Picasso's Guernica something called content?

Of course, this is a shift that's occurred before. Probably, Indigenous Americans thought it was quite strange that white people just bought knives from a general store -- as if knives were interchangeable and their origins unimportant. The further back you go in anthropology, the more art is embedded in (is synonymous with) objects of daily use. In my wife's office, she has little gnomes on her bookshelf that sit there just for fun. A hundred thousand years ago, if someone had three little figurines in their home, they probably had deep spiritual meaning and long histories.

January 15. Continuing from last week, I'm going to try to give a taste of Owen Barfield's book Saving The Appearances (1957). You've probably heard of Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). By "consciousness", Jaynes means the introspective mode of consciousness that modern humans have, and his big idea is intriguing without being threatening: that ancient people lived in a different reality than modern people -- but only inside their heads, where they heard the literal voices of the gods.

Barfield thinks that ancient people lived in a different reality outside their heads. This gets the book mostly ignored or classified as philosophy of religion, even though he insists that he's not writing about metaphysics, only perception. Rather than try to summarize his subtle argument, I'm going to jump to Chapter 14, and this passage inspired by the observation that art did not have perspective until the 1400s.

If, with the help of some time-machine working in reverse, a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man in the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our 'figuration' the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time at a photograph through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. 'Oh!' he would say, 'look how they stand out!'

We must not forget that in his time perspective had not yet been discovered, nor underrate the significance of this. True, it is no more than a device for pictorially representing depth, and separateness, in space. But how comes it that the device had never been discovered before -- or, if discovered, never adopted? There were plenty of skilled artists, and they would certainly have hit upon it soon enough if depth in space had characterized the collective representations they wished to reproduce, as it characterizes ours. They did not need it. Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved.

In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of -- what shall we say? -- of 'meaning', if you choose. It seems the most adequate word.

January 11. Weird links, starting with a scientific article about why you should go barefoot, The effects of grounding on inflammation:

Multi-disciplinary research has revealed that electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing) produces intriguing effects on physiology and health. Such effects relate to inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Stanford scientists boost hypnotizability with transcranial magnetic brain stimulation. This could be big, because hypnosis can be really powerful, except that a lot of people are immune to it. In the future they'll wonder why we were always competing with placebos, instead of just making placebos better.

Exploring the psychedelic mirror. There's a common belief that it's bad to look at yourself in a mirror when you're tripping, but this study looked at a bunch of Reddit posts, and concluded, "the positive affect to the experience was statistically significant compared to negative affect."

Fun thread on r/Psychonaut, Anyone here smoked enough dmt to know why we're here and wtf is going on? Personally, I don't want to see through the veil. I just want to feel at home in the world. Of all the effects people report from psychedelics, the one I most envy is the feeling that whatever happens, we're safe.

And some music. I've been listening to them for 40 years now, and this week I put together a sub-200 minute Hawkwind playlist on Spotify. Also there's a guide to Hawkwind albums at the bottom of my albums page.

January 8. Today, a long philosophy post. I thought I was too old to have my mind blown by a book. But after two of my favorite idea books, Physics as Metaphor and The Reenchantment of the World, both cited Owen Barfield as an influence, I bought Barfield's book Saving the Appearances. I'm only halfway through, and his big idea is too radical for this post, but one of his supporting ideas fits right in with my recent posts about propositional knowing.

Defined by Wikipedia, "Propositional knowledge asserts that a proposition or claim about the world is true." Following Barfield, I now think that no propositional statement is true. Words cannot be true or false, they can only be more or less useful. That includes these words.

I'm going to go ahead and say that nothing is true, because the kinds of things that are claimed as true cannot be true, while the things that are actually true are better described as real. One thing I think is real is often believed to be unreal: your sense experience in this moment. Edward Abbey said, "Appearance versus reality? Appearance is reality, God damn it!" This right now is the only thing you have to work with. If you die and go to heaven, it will still be this right now.

Another thing I think is real is what Charles Fort called the "universal" when he wrote "that only the universal can really be." Barfield calls it the "unrepresented". Beatrice Bruteau calls it the "infinite intercommunicating universe". Stephen Wolfram calls it the Ruliad. Theologians call it God. One thing everyone agrees on, is that it's too big and complex for us to possibly understand.

So, to mediate between direct experience, and the incomprehensible universal, we tell stories. These stories influence, and are influenced by, the way we perceive, creating the layer of reality that Barfield calls representations. He argues that ancient and medieval people knew they were working with representations, and only modern people think our representations are literally true, thus the book's subtitle, "A Study in Idolatry".

One useful thing, about framing propositions as useful and not true, is that you don't have to pick one and stick with it. You can use acceptances (not beliefs) as tools. If I start to care too much what people think, I can become temporarily a solipsist, and those people aren't real; if I start to think I'm better than other people, I can become temporarily a determinist, and even moral superiority is only luck.

Another useful thing is that you can go outside of science. I don't mind that science can't explain everything. What I don't like is when science says that anything that can't be pinned down in a laboratory, anything that can't be made the same for all observers, anything that "can't work" if conceived mechanistically, is forbidden territory.

For example, karma. One thing I like to do, when I'm walking around the city, is pick up litter. Usually it's just the most convenient pieces, but the other day I stopped outside the library to pick up a bunch of litter around a bus stop. Five minutes later, walking home, I spotted an ice cream carton in the middle of a busy sidewalk, and leaned down to snag it so I could throw it out. To my surprise, it was unopened and still frozen, a $7 pint of Haagen Dazs Cookies and Cream. I took it home to eat it.

Now, mechanistically, a certain percentage of picked up litter will turn out to be valuable. But the timing! Even the ice cream was lucky. Modern metaphysics is usually called "materialism", but another good term would be anti-psychism: whatever it is, from evolution to the movements of the stars, there's not supposed to be any mind behind it.

One practical advantage, in conceiving the world with mind behind it, is that life doesn't feel meaningless. One danger is, what if it's an evil mind? When things go wrong, am I being punished? If I see the number 4 everywhere, are the 4s out to get me? Then it's prudent to retreat into meaninglessness. But it's like shifting into neutral in a car -- you can't stay there forever.

I wonder if anti-psychism is correlated with an adversarial culture. If your lived reality is "every man for himself and God against all," then it's less stressful if you factor out God. The Scientific Revolution emerged from the late Middle Ages, a time of terrible plagues and wars. If we can make the late modern age friendlier, there may be more willingness to see meaning everywhere. Related: What are the craziest signs you've ever gotten from God/universe?

I don't do an RSS feed, but Patrick has written a script that creates a feed based on the way I format my entries. It's at http://ranprieur.com/feed.php. You might also try Page2RSS.

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. John Tobey's archive takes a snapshot every few days, but sooner or later it will succumb to software updates. If anyone is interested in taking it on, email me and I'll send you the code. Also, the Wayback Machine takes a snapshot a few times a month.

I've always put the best stuff in the archives, and in spring of 2020 I went through and edited the pages so they're all fit to link here. The dates below are the starting dates for each archive.

2005: January / June / September / November
2006: January / March / May / August / November / December
2007: February / April / June / September / November
2008: January / March / May / July / September / October / November
2009: January / March / May / July / September / December
2010: February / April / June / November
2011: January / April / July / October / December
2012: March / May / August / November
2013: March / July
2014: January / April / October
2015: March / August / November
2016: February / May / July / November
2017: February / May / September / December
2018: April / July / October / December
2019: February / March / May / July / December
2020: February / April / June / August / October / December
2021: February / April / July / September / December
2022: February / April / July / September / November
2023: January / March / June / August / November
2024: January