Ran Prieur

"I quickly learned that the pursuit of happiness is largely pointless, happiness being the only target one merely has to aim at in order to miss."

-John Cooper Clarke

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February 23. I'm mostly recovered from Covid, except for my sense of smell, which is around ten percent. I've found, during times of suffering, the best move is not to look forward to the suffering being over, but to imagine that it's going to continue, just like this, for a hundred years. Being fully present is always good for your mental health, but being present with bliss only teaches you to be present with more bliss; being present with pain teaches you to be present under many other conditions. I've also found, when pain gets beyond a certain level, there's no space for any kind of rumination, all you can do is feel it. I've only been there a few times in my life, not this time, which was pretty mild.

There's a common belief that suffering is necessary for pleasure, or that evil is necessary for good, like the change of the seasons. It's one of those ideas that sounds like wisdom, but when you think about it, it's not actually true. There are some people who are happy all the time, and other people who are miserable all the time. I think suffering and evil are like taking a wrong turn on a journey. Taking a wrong turn sometimes happens, and some good can come of it. But it's never necessary.

Revisiting a link from a couple weeks ago, Depressed individuals tend to avoid experiencing positive emotions. Nobody would ever consciously choose to avoid feeling good, so they must be doing it subconciously, and it must be hard not to. So I'm thinking, what instruction would you give to depressed people, to change their habits? Something like, "Imagine the world is full of very subtle invitations to feel good, like tiny packages that you can look for, and open."

Related: a post from the Spirituality subreddit, Has anyone heard about the real way to pray? Basically, instead of asking for what you don't have, start with something that you already have, even the tiniest amount of it, and then feel grateful, and then ask for more.

February 21. This week I have my second round of Covid. It started out exactly like a cold. Then on the third day, when I felt worse instead of better, I got suspicious and took a test. Overall it's milder than my first time, but this time it's given me a cough, and I know the lungs are where Covid gets you. I've started doing a weird exercise, breathing all the way out, squeezing down to the floor of my lungs, because I read somewhere that that's a good way to detox.

One stray link on meditation: Long-term meditation might change your poop, hinting at effects on the gut–brain axis

February 19. Continuing on altered states of consciousness, my New Year's resolution was to get high more often -- with the constraint that it still has to be good for me. I completely failed. But I did get a better sense of my limits. My ceiling is five sessions a week, each session being less than a tenth of a gram of flower in a desktop vaporizer. Beyond that, the benefits are sketchy and the withdrawal is obvious. My sweet spot is probably three a week, clearly better than two, and no withdrawal. Related: a short thread from the Elder Trees subreddit, Does anybody else feel like an NPC when not smoking regularly?

It's a common belief that meditation is a good substitute for drugs. But if I were to make a Venn diagram of how I benefit from weed and meditation, those circles wouldn't even be on the same page. Weed is like parasailing: without having to do anything, I fly. Meditation is like swimming lessons: I learn the skill of not sinking into bad thought patterns. It's never taken me above my baseline, or out of my default mode network. I usually practice in the middle of the night when I can't sleep, and lately I've been trying to alternate between very narrow focus and very wide focus. When I'm out walking, I see how long I can go without thinking words, and I'm making progress in posture and smooth breathing. But as long as I'm sober, I continue to feel disconnected in a non-living world.

Update: One exception is what I call a "full body glow". More words will not explain it any better, and I don't have to meditate to get it. All I have to do is relax. But it probably comes from putting in the hours focusing on my body, and my next ambition is to feel it when I'm not relaxing.

February 16. Some Reddit links about altered states of consciousness, starting with this exceptional trip report. There's also good stuff in the discussion thread.

Earth is like a "program" that uses complex cause and effect sequences with all of nature just to cultivate moments of the sensation of ecstasy.
What the hell is all this, consciousness is just having fun with energy combinations. It's withholding its own true nature from itself by creating energy labyrinths to arrive at its own true nature differently every time.

The best thread yet on my favorite question, If you could choose what happens after you die, how would you want the afterlife to be like? I like to pretend I do get to choose my afterlife, for the same reasons as Pascal's wager. I choose a personal paradise based on everything I imagined in this life but couldn't do because of the limitations of this world. The last thing I want is reincarnation as another clueless human, and yet that's a popular choice.

Of course, this world is great with the right mental state, described in this post, How usual is this experience? Maybe one person in a million?

Lately, after I do my practices in the morning, I feel like I have no body or mind. I will just be in a cloud of bliss and feel amazing. If I stare out the window at a tree or the sky I may just go into trance mode where the world seems to dance and move together slowly, steadily and peacefully but frozen in this very moment. Often I will just cry out of love and gratitude for no reason, or cry if I see something tragic or sad. I actually don't remember when the last time I was fearful about anything. I seem to have accepted that this is it. Life is here and now. If I relax my breath, it feels amazing to be here wherever I am. Death seems like it will be the ultimate relaxation - the most blissful thing. When pain comes I welcome it as an amazing opportunity to shed some more of my burden.

Finally, thanks Noah for this fascinating DID Q&A, DID being the new term for multiple personality disorder.

February 14. Continuing from Monday, Matt wonders if there's a way for transcendence (vertical) and paradox (horizontal) to be reconciled. I was already assuming they could be, but when I think about it, it's probably like one of those illusions where you can't see it both ways at once. Getting transcendence requires non-paradoxical certainty, and getting paradox requires not caring about transcendence. I also wonder if "enlightenment" is popularly imagined as transcendence, but when you get there, it's actually paradox. That would explain a lot about Buddhism.

I've finished Owen Barfield's Saving The Appearances, and despite his general ability to see through the filters of modernity, he totally buys into the modern idea of transcendence, by arguing that we are not going back to the "original participation" of indigenous peoples, but forward to "final participation". This might have inspired Ken Wilber's concept of pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational, and I think both authors are reaching. I would call the next stage "informed participation" or "post-rational". It's neither final nor transcendent, just the next thing we're doing.

Barfield was a Christian, and he spends the later chapters in wild speculations about the incarnate word. He doesn't seem to notice that he's created a cognitive framework that explains how Jesus could have actually done miracles -- and that we all could. "With God all things are possible." It's not that you can manifest any reality you want, but that we can filter down the incomprehensible true reality into all kinds of different working realities, any of which can do things that seem impossible to the others.

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.

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