Ran Prieur

"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."

- Terence McKenna

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May 24, 1am. Been obsessed with Picbreeder. Here's my panel of images, and for some reason I'm seeing my first (Panda) and most recent (Candy Mushroom) switched, but otherwise you can see that it only took a few hours to learn to use the interface and develop a personal style. (Weed helped.)

May 23. I've linked to this before and I'll probably link to it again, because it's really good: Stop Trying To Be Creative. It's about Picbreeder, a website where you can gradually evolve images until they look like something interesting, and how all creativity works this way. You don't create something good by planning to create that exact thing -- paradoxically, focusing on a specific objective blocks you from getting there. Instead you have to go through a process of following unexpected new ideas, and letting go of old ones. This reminds me of a quote from my favorite songwriter about avoiding comprehensible lyrics, because "a word pins you down."

On basically the same subject, Upside of Distraction. It's about writers who cut everything out of their life except their writing project, and they become so narrowly focused that they lose touch with reality and write badly. Obviously too much distraction will also prevent good writing, and what you need is balance between your creative work and other stuff that might seem to be useless or even unpleasant.

May 20. Today's subject is techno-dystopia creep. Hyper-Reality is a brilliant new six minute film about a potential future where physical and virtual reality are merged into a bizarre nightmare world. A great novel about the same kind of thing is Feed by M.T. Anderson.

This long article, How Technology Hijacks People's Minds, explains in detail how we accidentally lose our agency to technology, and suggests some reforms, like smartphones that estimate the time cost of a click, or an "FDA for tech" that enforces standards for stuff like how easy it is to cancel a digital subscription.

Comment thread from Hacker News, What's the best tool you used to use that doesn't exist anymore? These are people who love technology and have influence in the tech world, and they're still powerless to stop good things from changing into bad things. This happens in a thousand ways, but what they mostly have in common is that short-sighted decisions take less effort than far-sighted decisions, and this effect is multiplied as systems get bigger.

Quick note on another subject. The other day I posted a reader email about mold toxicity and motivation to the subreddit and there are some good comments.

And some music for the weekend. A reader sent me some links to Moondog videos. He was a weird street musician who dressed like a viking, and is one of those artists like Captain Beefheart that I eventually want to listen to deeply but haven't got around to it yet. But after listening to one album, Invocation is incredible, ten minutes of primal space rock with a barrage of low horns playing the same two notes over and over. And I might like Torisa even better. Like Invocation it's hypnotic and emphasizes the one-beat, and it also has epic high notes and gets gradually louder. Now that I think about it, these remind me of two Hawkwind songs -- Invocation is like Space Is Deep and Torisa is like Wind of Change.

May 18. Two tangents from Monday's subject. From the final paragraph, here's my point reframed without having to know anything about Gattaca or genetic engineering: 1) Our culture loves activity and accomplishment so much that if some technology promised to double our productivity, it wouldn't even occur to most people to wonder if that was a good thing -- doing twice as much stuff means the world is twice as good. 2) All kinds of technology are giving us ever greater powers of self-transformation and self-enhancement. 3) Put this together and there is a danger that, with good intentions, we'll make ourselves extremely harmful.

Of course this has already happened. Ten thousand years ago the whole rim of the Mediterranean was covered with forests. We have extracted rare elements from deep underground and refined them into bombs that have burned whole cities. We've burned so much oil to push air out of the way of our cars, that it's causing a global climate catastrophe. The age of insane overactivity is probably not about to begin, but about to end. Still, it might get worse before it gets better, and not everyone will survive the shift to doing less.

From the second paragraph, where I bashed the idea of "magical virtue", what if I was wrong? I mean obviously, in this economy, being successful is largely a matter of luck, and even when it seems to come from hard work, there is still deeper luck in genetics or culture, or being in the right place where something you already love doing happens to be worth money. But if you keep thinking in that direction you end up with determinism, which is boring and empty. Strong-definition free will is much more interesting: that sometimes, when you make a choice, it comes from a place that is deeper than biology or physics or causality, but is still you.

Now we're getting into religion. I identify as a taoist/pantheist, but in practice it's not that different from monotheism. When football players score touchdowns and point to God, they're saying, "This is not about me, it's about my part in something so vast and incomprehensible that we can only come close to understanding it through a life-long practice of being humble and receptive." I think identity is an illusion, but one we have to work with, by viewing the self as the interface between different aspects of the Divine. And choices that involve true free will have something to do with that.

May 16. I want to go back to the subject of motivation. Yesterday I finally finished my kitchen work table project. Here's a side view and front view of the table. The top is IKEA butcher block, trimmed down to five feet long, the other wood is all scraps or cheap lumber, and Leigh Ann made some important design suggestions and chose the color. I'm very happy with it, but it took me a really long time -- I think that butcher block has been in my basement for more than three years. Last fall I got serious about it, but I could never get in a groove where doing the work made me want to do more work -- it wasn't like going over the top of a hill and coasting, but like pushing constantly uphill. So every few days when I felt a bit of energy I would go out to the garage and work for a bit until I got burned out.

Meanwhile, some people love building furniture and could never keep a blog going for twelve years. What is it that makes a person want to do a thing? The popular belief is that highly successful people have some kind of magical virtue -- it's virtue because (in western culture) doing is more valued than not-doing, and it's magical because nobody looks for a deeper cause. I can't prove it, but I suspect that all virtue is luck.

For someone my age who doesn't go to a gym, my legs are really strong, and it's because of a medical condition that makes me feel terrible if I don't do vigorous leg exercise. Our sedentary culture calls it a disorder, but if my prehistoric ancestors had it, they probably called it being a good hunter -- look how aggressively that guy chases down antelope! So I'm wondering, what if high-achieving modern people have a similar condition that forces them to do stuff that we happen to find valuable?

There's evidence that depression is an infectious disease, and here's an article about the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii and how it affects human psychology. So if one medical condition can energize me physically, and another one can dampen someone psychologically, there might be one that energizes people psychologically, and we haven't identified it as a disease because we like what it does.

I've mentioned the film Gattaca before because I hate its message: that Ethan Hawke's drive to succeed makes him a better person that Jude Law with his genetically engineered physical perfection. The movie does not acknowledge that drive to succeed also has a deeper cause, maybe not even that deep. And when we figure it out, given our cultural bias toward highly driven people, I fear that we'll engineer ourselves into all being insanely motivated, which is much scarier than making ourselves healthy and lazy.

May 13. Taking a break from politics, two links about DIY traffic engineering. Can we banish the phantom traffic jam? It's about how self-driving cars can stop traffic waves on freeways, but it's also about how we could do it without "intelligent" cars if we were more intelligent ourselves. This reddit comment goes into more detail on driving technique. The idea is to change start-and-stop traffic in front of you to smooth traffic behind you by watching carefully in both directions. There's also good stuff about the psychology of driving:

If a car merges into your gap, will you be late to work? What if ten cars jump in ahead of you, O the Humanity! Nope, even if 60 cars get ahead, that only delays you by a minute or two. Such a small a delay is insignificant for most commutes. It's down in the noise, a tiny fluctuation. Compared to a line at the grocery checkout, one shopping cart equals 50 to 200 cars ahead of you on the highway. But it doesn't feel that way!

I've been awake since 4am because I had terrible restless legs, not coincidentally because I haven't used marijuana for 13 days. I got up and did a bunch of squats, and then heel lifts while pushing hard at the top of a doorway, and then I went for a predawn run. Normally my legs get tired before my heart and lungs, but this morning my heart and lungs were totally drained and my legs were nowhere near satisfied. So I'll try to do this more often.

And some music for the weekend. I was just reminded of a great obscure song by a question on the Record Store subreddit. There are a lot of bands who I don't particularly like, except for one song that's at the fringe of their usual style. This is a minimalist outtake from American Music Club's weirdest and darkest album, Mercury: Love Connection NYC.

A newer, better band with a similar low-pitched slow style is Timber Timbre, and my favorite by them is Grand Canyon.

May 11. Major new post from Anne, Unnecessariat. It's about the death epidemic among poor rural white Americans, mostly from suicide and opiates. Anne compares it to the AIDS epidemic of the 80's and 90's, which also affected a low-status population that the authorities didn't care about, and had similar death numbers. But AIDS victims were much better at organizing to help each other. Why?

Anne writes, "If there's no economic plan for the Unnecessariat, there's certainly an abundance for plans to extract value from them." Later she links to this article, Death predicts whether people vote for Donald Trump. Now that poor rural whites have been drained economically, Trump is extracting their political value, and if he becomes president I don't expect him to do anything for them -- although maybe he's already done something by overthrowing the Republican establishment.

Of course my solution would be an unconditional basic income, which would free all poor people from a constant state of financial emergency -- but it still wouldn't solve their boredom, their lack of meaningful participation in something larger. I can't even imagine a full solution for this, but I see a partial solution that's maybe good enough for now, and it comes back to why AIDS victims were better organized.

I think it's because they lived in cities. The population density of cities enables networks of high-quality face-to-face connections that are almost impossible in rural and small town living. Maybe it was better in the 19th century, or the 13th century, but 20th century technology has separated rural Americans from their landbase and from each other. Unless you live like the Amish, or live in a city, you probably do not have the technological and economic foundation for a healthy culture.

A hard crash would make this much worse. Even in the Great Depression urban people did better than rural people, and imagine how many practical skills have been lost since then. But it might not be too late for better government. Here's a larger version of an image from Anne's post, Overdose deaths in 2014 per 100,000. What jumps out at me is New York state, like a blue lake in the orange desert of the northeast. There can't be much cultural difference between the New York's rural counties and the neighboring counties in other states, but the drug deaths are much lower, which suggests a connection to state-level policy.

Also, backing up my guess about the Amish, they live in that tiny blue island in Ohio. And I wouldn't have guessed that South Dakota and Nebraska would be so much better than Washington and Oregon.

May 9. Writing about presidential politics is like a bad drug -- I enjoy it at the time and regret it later. So I'm going to try to avoid it for a while. Today, two links about different kinds of bloat.

Are Your Taxes Paying for the Cost of Your Street? The author does some math to make a boring subject interesting: most residential property taxpayers are not covering the costs of maintaining the section of street right in front of them. He explains this with two stories that seem to contradict each other. 1) Urban sprawl is a Ponzi scheme, where growth is subsidized by the next round of growth. 2) Urban sprawl is a parasite, where growth is subsidized by dense urban cores. Anyway, in either case, the suburban infrastructure is doomed.

The crazy thing is that sprawl is not caused by the free market, but required by law: "Zoning, setbacks, minimum parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, maximum units per lot, minimum road widths." Now, maybe with no laws we'd still get sprawl, but certainly, with different laws we could have dense, walkable cities with sustainable infrastructure. I expect this to happen in about two hundred years, and meanwhile the suburbs are going to turn into crime-ridden wastelands, and then really cool ruins.

The Website Obesity Crisis is a speech transcript loaded with outrageous examples of how big web pages are now. On top of the tiny footprint of actual text, there's usually bunch of badly designed graphics, and on top of that, a massive network of ad-serving surveillance scripts. The author's solution is to ban third party ads, so "Ads would become dumb again, and be served from the website they appear on." This is politically impossible, but I'm curious to see what will happen when the bubble bursts and everyone admits that the cost of ads exceeds the value of ads to increase consumer spending.

The most interesting bit is the conclusion, where he uses a video game metaphor for two visions of how the web could be. The first example is Minecraft, where simple rules create wide-open gameplay and "you are meant to be an active participant." The second example is Call of Duty...

...an exquisitely produced, kind-of-but-not-really-participatory guided experience with breathtaking effects and lots of opportunities to make in-game purchases.
The user experience... is that of being carried along, with the illusion of agency, within fairly strict limits. There's an obvious path you're supposed to follow, and disincentives to keep you straying from it. As a bonus, the game encodes a whole problematic political agenda.

Never mind web design and video games -- that sounds like a description of ordinary life in the developed world in the early 21st century. We can't even imagine a society where life is like Minecraft, let alone agree on how to get there. That's why politics are getting so crazy, because the only clear path is to push the Call of Duty world so far that it breaks.

May 6. Sometimes I think all arguments are semantic, and after some reader comments, I want to use different words to explain what troubles me about Trump supporters. I called it "tribalism" and defined it as "the habit of generating meaning by dividing the world into the in-group and the out-group." But those words cast too wide a net that pulls in stuff that's harmless or even beneficial.

I'm thinking about friendly sports rivalries. From the NFL subreddit, here's yesterday's post-draft trash talk thread. The comments are in all caps because they're pretending to be shouting but it's all in fun. This is us-vs-them thinking in a healthy larger context that brings people together, and generally /r/NFL is a civil community that has a good sense of the line you don't cross and if you do cross it you get downvoted.

Compare this to the poisionous atmosphere of another subreddit, Hillary for Prison -- and I'm sure that's not the worst political community but I'm not interested in looking harder. I know some Trump supporters are sane people who don't think like that, but my point is, that's why sane people should fear Trump, because he is serving as a focus for the kind of energy that makes sports fans assault fans of rival teams and political enemies kill each other. Even if we fantasize about the system falling into chaos, I don't think we want that kind of chaos.

So, if we can generate meaning by dividing insiders from outsiders in a healthy way, how does it become unhealthy? I think it has something to do with compulsive narrow focus. There's always a larger context in which apparent insiders and outsiders are really both insiders, and shifting your mind to that context is a valuable skill. If you have it, then you can gain the benefits of competition without any nastiness. When people lack that skill, when they know how to focus down into "us-vs-them" but not focus back out, then there's a ratcheting effect where former allies fight each other about ever smaller disagreements. This is socially unstable, like a black hole collapsing in on itself, or maybe like a forest fire. If you see this happening, the first move is to put the fire out, to make peace; if that fails, the second move is to isolate it and let it burn itself out, to let the enemies fight in a way that doesn't harm the world around them; and the emergency third move is to run away.

This shit is so bleak, I need something happy for the weekend. Here's the most awesome dog photo I've ever seen.

May 4. So Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee, and today I want to try to explain his success. One prominent blogger told the story that Trump supporters are lower-income wage workers, while Democrats are higher-income salary workers, and the salary workers exported the wage jobs to other countries, so now Trump is leading a wage worker revolt. I don't believe this. Wage vs salary is an interesting way to divide things up, but there is no evidence mapping this division to any political division, or if there is, it goes the other way.

From FiveThirtyEight, The Mythology Of Trump's 'Working Class' Support:

The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That's lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it's well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It's also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

There's a chart of 23 states, and only in Vermont do Clinton supporters have a much higher income than Trump supporters. Clinton is slightly higher in Connecticut and Virginia, and in every other state Trump supporters are making more money than Clinton supporters. Bernie Sanders supporters are richer than Ted Cruz supporters in New York, but in every other state Sanders has poorer supporters than all three Republicans.

This is the key sentence in the article: "Class in America is a complicated concept, and it may be that Trump supporters see themselves as having been left behind in other respects."

My explanation goes back to the deepest problem of being human: the need for life to feel meaningful. This is a book-length subject, so I'll skip ahead to the modern age and say that, in humanity's search for meaning, economic growth was a temporary hack: for a brief time, ordinary people could be part of a great story in which almost everyone was getting more prosperous.

If you've played video games, you know that almost all of them are built around some kind of improvement, and it would be hard to make a compelling game in which nothing is getting better. But that's where we are now as a society. Trump supporters don't have to be poor to feel like they're missing out -- they just have to not be getting richer. But almost nobody is getting richer, so how does this translate into different political factions?

Sanders supporters want to make the poor richer by making the rich poorer. The establishments of both parties refuse to accept that the age of economic growth is over. And the Republican fringe, which is now taking over the party, has given up on economics and gone back to tribalism. Nate Silver agrees: in his analysis of Why Republican Voters Decided On Trump, his number one reason for why he was wrong about Trump is "Voters are more tribal than I thought."

He never explains this, but I'll try. My off-the-cuff definition of "tribalism" is the habit of generating meaning by dividing the world into the in-group and the out-group. Liberals do this too, we all do it a little, and I'm not going to excuse it. It's a mistake and something that humanity has to overcome. But in the short term it's going to get much worse as it expands to fill the void left by the end of economic growth.

Other things are also expanding to fill this void, like prescription opioid addiction and the desire to colonize Mars. I have at least two horses in this race. One is conscientious hedonism, letting go of achievement and having a good time in ways that don't lead to having a bad time later. The other is to find meaning in downsizing.

May 2. I don't expect to post much this week, so here are some other sites that some of you might like. A reader reminds me about Slate Star Codex, a really smart blog that I don't follow because the guy often writes more than my brain can digest. His most recent post is wondering why early psychedelic researchers were so weird.

True Reddit is a subreddit that links to lots of thoughtful articles, including political and negative stuff that doesn't interest me as much as it used to.

And through True Reddit I just now discovered Craigslist Confessional. The author, Helena Bala, posts on Craigslist offering to listen to people, and shares their stories about once a week.

April 29. Last week I posted this link, People Want Power Because They Want Autonomy, and after some reader comments and some thinking, my interpretation is much more cynical.

The first problem is that our language misrepresents the whole issue. Why did they use the word "autonomy" and not the word "freedom"? Because "freedom" has too much baggage -- you can't take the word seriously when there's a building called the Freedom Tower. But "autonomy" means basically the same thing and only hides our lack of understanding.

The difference between "freedom" and "power" seems clear: freedom means doing what you want, and power means telling other people what to do. But what if you cut someone off in traffic? To you, that feels like freedom, but to the other person it feels like power. More generally, freedom and power are propaganda words for talking about conflicts of interest. If there is no conflict of interest, if you want to do something that doesn't bother anyone else in any way, then you can just do it -- you don't need to play the "freedom" card to justify yourself.

Going back to the study, "people want power because they want autonomy," all that means is that we want to have our way without visibly stopping other people from having their way. "Power" sounds like fun, but in practice, unless you're sadistic or psychopathic, it's unpleasant to make other people do stuff they'd rather not do. This is why, when society has a power inbalance, it tends to hide it from the people who have power, because they want to feel like all they have is freedom. This is how Paul Graham could write his infamous defense of wealth inequality -- he was thinking of wealth as a benign freedom to buy luxuries, and not the power to make people without wealth serve his interests.

Is it always painful to tell other people what to do and be told what to do? In my experience it is, but we're living in a difficult time. In the best tribal cultures, the chief has no coercive power, but serves as a moderator and motivator, organizing people in doing stuff they want to do anyway, and working out all the conflicts between different people's interests. This is nothing like our word "power" or our word "freedom" -- we have no language to grasp a healthy social order.

This also explains individualism. Of course disconnected selfishness is not going to build a good system -- but it's a valuable tool for breaking down bad systems. If a social order is so dysfunctional that a war of self-interest seems preferable, then it deserves to fall apart.

I don't want to return to low-tech tribal living, because the worst tribes are like North Korea without plumbing, and they tend to conquer the happier tribes. The nice thing about technology is that it gives an advantage to less repressive societies, because they're more creative and adaptable, and they can channel this through technology into political influence.

Bottom line: the best place to draw the line is not between power and freedom, or individual and group, but good social order and bad social order; and this difference has something to do with equality of influence, absence of punishment for saying no, and the awarding of positions of authority based on the ability to use authority for the good of everyone.

April 27. I want to write more about authority and autonomy but I'm still not smart enough to put it all together. So today I'll write early about music. My latest obsession is Melanie Safka, who recorded under the name Melanie and had a few radio hits in the 70's. I even bought one of her albums once and failed to appreciate it because I hadn't developed an ear for the human voice as an instrument. Last weekend I rediscovered her through a stroke of fate, when Leigh Ann watched a movie (Northern Soul) with Brand New Key in the soundtrack right after I vaped some weed.

I'm in awe of how much power and warmth Melanie's voice has while still having a sharp edge. Here's a good live video of Look What They've Done To My Song Ma, and her strongest original is probably Lay Down. My favorite song of all time, Big Blood's Song For Baltimore, is basically the next generation of Melanie's cover of Ruby Tuesday, or it's like an extension of the peak verse of Lay Lady Lay.

April 25. I'm not smart enough to do an original post today, so here are more links. From the subreddit, The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality:

Experiment after experiment has shown that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space.

I've reached a similar conclusion from deep study of subjects like paranormal phenomena, fringe science, and even conspiracy theory. Never mind quantum particles -- even if we're talking about human-scale objects and historical events, we're just patching together the illusion of an objective world from experiences that are fundmentally inconsistent.

How the Apocalypse Will Bring Out the Best in People, and I've written about this before in the context of the book A Paradise Built in Hell.

When violence does occur after a disaster, it is often a result of authorities or elites overreacting, fixating on protecting property instead of lives, misunderstanding situations they encounter, or simply getting frustrated that the recovery is happening without them.

And more happy news, Meet 'Bike Batman': Seattle's vigilante reuniting stolen bikes with their owners. The interesting thing is that he's cooperating with the police, and in theory the police could do exactly what he's doing, looking at bikes reported stolen and then looking for matches on Craigslist. But for some reason, probably misdirected funding, it's easier for an independent person to do that.

April 22. Miscellaneous fun stuff for the weekend. The other day I linked to the AbandonedPorn subreddit, which is not actual porn but cool photos of abandoned places. Earlier this week someone posted the creepiest photo I've ever seen, an old ruined house in the woods in Denmark. If you scroll down [link fixed], they go inside the house, which is disappointing because nothing can match the first photo.

An adventure playground is opening soon in New York City. It gives kids more freedom and chaos than an ordinary playground, and this might be part of a trend away from the extreme safety and structure that American kids have endured for the last few decades.

When Dating Algorithms Can Watch You Blush. This is not about scary technology (yet) but about the mysteries of the subconscious. OkCupid worked well for me, but its biggest weakness is that it relies on people to know consciously what they want in a partner, and it turns out they're mostly wrong, and a big part of what makes two people connect is stuff like body language and sentence structure. The next generation of dating sites will try to model this with computers.

My new favorite sport is women's soccer. Leigh Ann got me into the national team and now I'm following the NWSL, which just started its fourth season last weekend. On the schedules page you can find links to all the games streaming live on YouTube. I haven't picked a favorite team yet. Everyone loves the Portland Thorns and they're loaded with talent, but I'm leaning toward the Houston Dash because of their exciting young offense.

What I like best about soccer is what most people like least (other than diving): scoring is really difficult. You can't just impose your will on a defense -- you have to notice the tiniest openings and go through them like an electric spark, and most players can't do it even if they're great athletes. It seems like there are more creative attackers in the women's game than there used to be. Check out this video of Rachel Daly's NWSL debut.

April 20. This time of year I see all the work my neighbors are putting into their lawns, while my back yard is prettier with less work and less water. That's a cherry tree in the center, a peach and apricot back behind it, a strawberry patch below it and to the right, raspberries on the right against the fence, tomato starts in the lower left, and the purple flowers are grape hyacinth that survive the dry summers and spread by themselves. Of course the yellow flowers are dandelions, which are completely edible, attract pollinators, and improve the soil. They're one of the most helpful and beautiful plants in the world, and yet people see them as a pest and try to eradicate them (and fail).

For me this goes beyond horticulture and into metaphysics. Why do people go out of their way to make the world more difficult? Why are the most controlled places so ugly while neglected places are often beautiful?

I'm an optimist. A pessimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds and it still sucks, and I think it takes a lot of effort to make the world this bad and it's still pretty good. But when I think about it more, making the world worse is physically difficult and emotionally rewarding, because you're destroying what you've found and replacing it with what you've made, while making the world better is physically easy and emotionally painful, because you're expanding your consciousness to integrate the alien.

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