Ran Prieur

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

- Terence McKenna

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October 5. Continuing last week's subject, 13 months ago I posted some comments about motivation from a guitar teacher, about how his best students break the practice down into a series of tiny goals, so they're always getting a feeling of reward. And Friday I got this comment from Sheila about how she stuck with working out and losing weight:

What keeps me on target is seeing the positive changes in my life. I think it would be nearly impossible if I were trying to do something where I could not see or feel improvement in some way.

Now I'm thinking you can hack your motivational system by learning to notice smaller and smaller improvements. But also, there has to be a context in which the improvements are valuable. Two winters ago I worked out for a few months, but it wasn't worth the trouble. Doing squats enabled me to climb hills better on my bike, but I was already climbing hills well enough, I was already thin and healthy, and the main practical difference was my bigger thighs ripped out a pair of expensive jeans. Being able to do more pull-ups would be great if I was climbing trees every day to pick fruit.

If we are all guaranteed basic survival (which I support) then there's less room for improvements to have practical value, and what counts as an improvement is mostly a function of personality and culture. If you like listening to music, and your friends are musicians, getting better at playing music will have high value. What if you like killing and your friends are killers? Destruction is easier than creation, and I think most of the tragedies of history happened because whole cultures discovered that they could feel good by telling themselves that something easy was an improvement. If ancient civilizations had video games there would be more forests left. And even in modern society, how much meaningful activity is really just people motivating themselves at the expense of others?

Finally, a comment from Aaron:

It's been a while since I read the Continuum Concept but I remember Jean Liedloff describing the elders of the community and how their focus on life was achieving bliss. From what I understood they were aiming to have a perfectly still mind and to just let bliss wash over them. I know that western eyes see a stone age people as living in a state of extreme deprivation but as far as the Yequana people were concerned they had everything they needed - which is why the elders could indulge themselves by aiming to live in a perpetual state of bliss.

October 2. Motivation Part 3: the starter and the engine. I still haven't addressed the big practical question. Everyone wants to look back and say I worked out and got in shape, I learned to play guitar, I wrote a novel, but hardly anyone wants to do that stuff. How do you get yourself to do something that you know is good for you, but you totally don't feel like doing?

The simplest move is to just bite the bullet and force yourself to do it. That's how I brush my teeth every night. But if you try it on a long term project or a deep lifestyle change, you're going to crash and burn.

I think motivational speakers and motivational sayings are even worse, because you're not learning grit, and the benefit is still short-lived. It's like there are a bunch of cars with faulty engines, and popular "motivation" is about jump-starting them so they go for a bit and then break down again.

Except the "engine" is not a feature of individuals. It's a relationship between personality and environment. The right way to apply social motivation is not through the goal but through the process. Goal support would be "I believe in you, you can build a house and everyone will admire you." Process support would be "Nail this board to this other board because I'm your friend and you don't want to let me down."

Process-based social support is so difficult and time-intensive that you almost always have to pay for it, and even then it's usually not that good. Being self-taught is impressive not because learning is hard, but because without social support you can't devote thousands of hours to learning something unless it's something you are made to do.

We're always told to follow our dreams, but committing to an activity that you dream about but haven't really done is like marrying for beauty. It only works out if you're very lucky, because your dreams are in no position to know what you're going to continue to enjoy doing hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

So my answer to motivation is to use brute force for the little things, and for the big things, try a bunch of different stuff until you find what you tend to keep doing. This must be what writing teachers mean by "finding your voice": your voice is whatever kind of writing feeds back into you and keeps you going. For me, that's blogging, but I'm trying to find a way to do it with fiction.

September 30. Motivation Part 2: the end of poverty. Continuing from Monday's subject of what to put at the top of the hierarchy of needs: Lefty political culture would say that once your basic needs are met, you should dedicate your life to meeting the basic needs of everyone in the world. Of course this is a good idea, but what happens if we get there? Imagine it's the year 2500 and nobody in the world needs anything. If motivation is driven by necessity, what do we do all day?

One answer is to find increasingly trivial ways to be dissatisfied. There's already a phrase for this, "first world problems", like The Starbucks down the street from me doesn't have drive through, so I had to drive to the one further down the street.

Another answer is to use virtual reality to have the best of both worlds: all our needs are met, but we can enter an illusion of struggling to survive, or fighting for epic goals that don't destabilize the actual system. In a hundred years video games will be seen like we now see books: some are trash, but others are valuable tools to expand our minds.

Another answer is to see unstructured time as an opportunity for spiritual growth. From this week's Guardian: Boredom is not a problem to be solved. It's the last privilege of a free mind. This Hacker News thread has some semantic discussion of the word "boredom", and also a great comment about how animals in the wild have a different spirit than animals in zoos.

This leads to the first-thought utopian vision that we'll all be happy if we just crash the system and bring back the excitement of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. This idea will never go away, but hardly anyone will act on it because on some level we know it's irresponsible. We're smarter than lions, and it's possible for us to have wild spirits without giving up the benefits of modernity, and without disconnecting from reality. Figuring out how to do this will be humanity's next big challenge.

September 28. Before I start this week's big subject, I want to comment on something posted yesterday to the subreddit, a series of eleven photographs of wild stuff taking over ruins, titled Nature against Civilization. I don't view it as a conflict -- I see an artistic collaboration between nature and human builders to create beauty that neither could create alone. Both are trying to create something useful to their world, not with hostility but with indifference to the needs of the other world. But nature knows how to use the human world without actively destroying it, and humans are not good at that yet. Now...

Motivation Part 1: the hierarchy of needs. All this month I've been thinking about motivation, the inner drive to do stuff. As I get older, motivation is the one psychological skill that doesn't get any easier. It might even be getting harder.

I can explain this in terms of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the higher you are in the pyramid, the more motivation is a problem. So if you're starving, your only problem is finding food, and the issue of motivation doesn't even arise. But if you're well fed and comfortable and have a decent social role, motivation might be your only problem.

If motivation comes from urgency of need, and you're totally unmotivated to do something, then you should ask yourself whether you really need it. Maybe you just don't fully understand that you need it. For example, you might be unmotivated to eat better and exercise until you almost die of a heart attack. This reminds me of the line from William Blake: "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."

Or maybe your lazy self is right: you can't motivate yourself to do that thing because it's not something you would actually enjoy, only something your culture tells you is cool.

The top of Maslow's pyramid is "self-actualization", which sounds like a 1970's fad. Maslow died in 1970 and he had already changed his mind and said the top of the pyramid should be "self-transcendence". A traditional culture might say the top of the pyramid is honoring your ancestors. Elon Musk would say it's colonizing space. Is there a correct answer, or is it pure cultural relativism? Maybe each culture fills the top of the pyramid with whatever best perpetuates that culture, so the top level is just a projection of the respect and belonging levels below it.

September 25. It's been a while since I've written about entertainment. Leigh Ann and I finally finished watching the entire series of House MD. If I were in charge, at the end of every episode they would find a final anomaly that disproved the diagnosis that cured the patient, and the patient would go home and they would never, ever have an airtight answer. Because that's how reality works. (And if you know the Enneagram, I would make House a 5w4 not a 5w6.)

More recently we've been watching Sense8, the Netflix series by the Wachowskis, and it's pretty terrible. The big ideas are good but the writing is on the emotional level of a twelve year old, with adult themes and profanity so I don't know who the audience is supposed to be. Episode 9 is one of the worst things I ever sat through. But an earlier episode had a great line about drugs: "Drugs are like shoes: everyone needs them, but they don't always fit."

On that subject, I've mentioned before that alcohol doesn't work for me. It makes me chatty because I lose awareness that what I have to say is not interesting, and I never get any euphoria. But I like the taste so I'll often drink a few sips of wine or half a beer. I love marijuana but only if I'm above a [7]. Here's a funny 1-10 high scale where someone just took the medical pain scale and replaced the words, so don't take it too literally but it's surprising how well it fits. Read it bottom to top.

Anyway, to get that high I have to wait about two weeks between each session, and I always listen to music because I can hear it much better. A week ago I made a chronological mix of my favorite hits from when I was a teenager, and discovered some things: 1) The Go-Go's have really interesting voices. 2) Duran Duran sucks. 3) King of Pain by the Police is the best mixed song I've ever heard. 4) Most 80's new wave was just watered down Gary Numan.

September 23. More technology links. What Happens Next Will Amaze You is a dumb title for a well-made text-and-image version of a great talk by Maciej Ceglowski about internet surveillance and how to fix it. He suggests six reforms: 1) the right to download what companies have on you; 2) the right to delete it; 3) a 90 day limit on storing behavioral data; 4) the right to disconnect devices from the internet and they still work; 5) a ban on data collection by third party ad networks; 6) voluntary enforceable privacy promises, which would lead to competition in privacy.

There's also some good criticism of the techno-elite and how San Francisco has terrible poverty despite all the internet money: "You wouldn't hire a gardener whose houseplants were all dead. But we expect that people will trust us to reinvent their world with software even though we can't make our own city livable."

How to Rebuild an Attention Span is about a video game that "helped reverse signs of aging in the brains of players." Of course there's no link where you can play the game. In the coming years I expect virtual reality self-improvement to get more and more powerful, and to fall into two categories: clinically tested stuff that most of us can't afford, and free stuff that you have to test on your own.

Here's the Hacker News comment thread on that article, and the top comment argues that we don't need the game because meditation works just as well. This ignores human psychology. Meditation is great for people who value self-discipline. (I changed my mind about it being related to social status, because there's not much overlap between meditators and self-promoters.) But if games can have similar benefits, then those benefits are available to people who just want to have a good time.

By the way, I practice two kinds of meditation. One is to try to keep my mind empty of thoughts for as long as possible. I only do this when I can't sleep, and it usually puts me out within ten minutes. (Not that I can blank my mind for ten minutes. It's more like two seconds hundreds of times.) The other is mindfulness, which is hard to explain, but Charles Tart has written some great books about it, including Mind Science and Living the Mindful Life. I've figured out a great mindfulness hack: I imagine that my stream of experience is the POV in a music video.

September 21. A couple years ago I started donating blood, mostly because I suspect it's good for my health; and it could be a coincidence, but since then I've been accidentally cutting myself less often. Yesterday for the first time I did double red cells, and it was fun watching the machine drain my blood, separate it, and pump the plasma and platelets back in. But my brain is still not working well and posting this week will be light. Today, some links about technology.

Wonderful widgets: components become more elegant with software that produces the most efficient shape. (Thanks Erik.) The title explains the article but you have to click on it to see how much more beautiful the computer-designed components are. This reminds me of the idea that any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.

Related: Edward Snowden: we may never spot space aliens thanks to encryption, because when encryption gets good enough, the signals are indistinguishable from random cosmic background radiation. Now I'm thinking, what if all randomness is actually well-encrypted meaning? Maybe our brains are nothing more than decryption keys.

September 17. I don't plan to post again until next week. Some fun stuff for the weekend: The mystery of Devil's Kettle Falls is about a big waterfall that goes into a hole, and nobody can figure out where the water goes. Compounding the strangeness is that this happens immediately after the river splits in two. It's like the river is a quantum function that can go two ways, and one way stays here and the other way leads to another universe.

And three reddit links. Homeless people's dogs are always the best behaved dogs, with some good explanations in the short comment section. By the way, my position on homelessness is they should legalize it.

There's a cure for ringing ears. It only works temporarily, but if you keep doing it, it might lead to long-term improvement.

Finally, I'm cynical about how much difference the President can make, but sometimes the biggest improvements come from decisions that seem trivial at the time. Jimmy Carter made the American microbrew industry possible by legalizing the selling of malt, hops, and yeast to home brewers for the first time since Prohibition.

September 14. More stray links. I like to remind people about No Tech Magazine. Despite its name, it's about how wonderful technology can be when it's used right, which usually involves a mix of old and new ideas. A few weeks ago there was a nice book excerpt about why trains are the best aid to thought.

Also on the subject of transportation, Public Transit Should Be Uber's New Best Friend. It's a lot of words and numbers for a simple idea: if you need a car a hundred times a year, it's cheaper to own a car, but if public transit is so good that you only need a car five times a year, it's cheaper to not own a car and use Uber.

Last week on reddit there was a great comment about how war fucks you up. I used to think deadly violence by independent agents was better than deadly violence by people obeying orders, because, well, acting independently is better than obeying orders. But that ignores human psychology: people who kill and feel good about it are dangerously mentally ill and need to be locked up, while soldiers quickly become cynical about the value of killing, as they should be.

From the BBC, The best and worst ways to spot a liar. The worst way is by trying to read body language, and the best way is by asking questions until the lies break down. Of course this only works if the people asking the questions have higher social status than the liars, otherwise the liars can just refuse to answer.

Finally, after Roberta Vinci, a 300-1 underdog, knocked off Serena Williams in the US Open, she gave this great post match interview. The best bit is where the interviewer asks what made her think she could win, and she just says "No." She never expected to win and had already scheduled her flights assuming she would lose. This debunks an annoying motivational doctrine, that success comes from believing in success. More often it's the other way around: success comes from letting go of results and focusing on the process.

September 11. Bunch o' links. I just wrote this comment on the ask men over 30 subreddit, about how the world has changed during my life. Here's me being grumpy:

More and more products are advertised for what they don't have instead of what they have. Everything is this-free and that-free. It troubles me that the word "free", which is supposed to mean something like wildness, is now used for puritanism. "Woo-hoo, the wind is blowing through my hair because of my dietary restrictions!" And what's with all these food allergies anyway? Whether or not they're psychosomatic, something new is causing them.

Also on the subject of food, I knew it! Why salad is so overrated.

This probably won't amount to anything, but it's cool: Physicists Show Molecules Made of Light May Be Possible.

More science: a great long article about the discovery of Homo naledi, a new human-like species remarkable for its small head, long legs, and abundant skeletons. The best part of the story is they had to recruit very skinny people with scientific credentials to get into the cave where the bones were discovered.

Finally, this is one of the best articles ever posted to the subreddit: Why boring cities make for stressed citizens. There's stuff about how we're biologically adapted for complex environments, how rats in stimulating environments are much smarter, and a bit at the end about how boredom might be good for us. I just got the idea that boredom is like drugs: it's good in moderation, and with the right set and setting.

September 9. [permalink] After my August 31 post, a reader thought I wanted to fool myself into being happy. I'm going to continue to use the term "feeling good" because it's both broader and clearer than "happiness". And if it makes sense to fool myself into feeling good, then of course I don't want to do it. But what if it doesn't make sense? What's the difference between real feeling good and fake feeling good? It's not the feeling itself. It's that feeling good is supposed to be a secondary effect of living well. Okay, then what is the purpose of living well? I think it ultimately comes back around to feeling good -- or if there's something more than that, it's in the realm of metaphysics.

My thesis, in its most shocking form, is that all morality and meaning are grounded in hedonism or God. But I have to qualify that because "God" implies a human form and I'm thinking of something more like the Tao. And "hedonism" implies feeling good in a short-sighted way -- the hedonist gets drunk without full awareness of the hangover.

But imagine omniscient hedonism: seeking all kinds of feeling good, in all life, for all time, and all in balance. This is my idea of the immanent Divine -- the deeper intelligence or algorithm that is identical with the world. The transcendent Divine, if it exists, would be an unseen larger world served by this world, probably by making it feel good in ways beyond our understanding.

So hedonism and God, if defined broadly enough, overlap into the same thing. Where does this leave other sources of morality and meaning? Well, it's hard to keep track of the good feelings of all life everywhere, so we take shortcuts, like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Most moral shortcuts are not so benign. Ideology is what happens when our minds get so fixated on an idea that we forget why it's supposed to be valuable. It feels good to focus your mind to a point, but when this mixes with morality or meaning it leads to tragedy. Think of your favorite nutcase fundamentalists and all the harm they would do if they had more power.

Ideology can be deconstructed by "doing the math": explaining precisely how this value or goal leads to feeling good all around. (To quote Neil Young, love and only love will break it down.) We can never do this perfectly, but just trying to do it keeps us grounded in reality. And it's good to start with our own feelings because we know them more reliably than the feelings of others.

Going back to the original point: if feeling good is the source of all meaning, is there any reason not to game the system, to use drugs or other hedonic shortcuts? One reason is if you're in a position of power, because you need to be tuned into the feelings of the people affected by your decisions. But in the modern political system, who has any power? If you have no power even over your own life, there is no reason not to feel good through drugs. This is why drug addiction is not a moral issue but a political issue: the less socially connected you are, the more likely it is that disconnected good feeling is your best choice.

Even in Utopia, there's a place for good feeling that's disconnected from the outer world, because you're still connected to an inner world. This opens up a whole new subject: the difference between using a drug (a game, a show, a song, a fantasy, an idea) to explore your inner world, or to avoid exploring it. If you trust yourself to make this decision, you have more fun.

September 8. Tomorrow I plan to get back to last week's subject, but I just want to clarify my comment from yesterday: I have zero evidence that anyone envies me, but if they did I think it would be a good sign. And having personal experience of being more and less admired, I have contempt for the whole social dynamic. Supposedly actions are better than words, but remote admiration happens when the actions of the admired person have been filtered, typically without their full awareness, into a kind of deceptive speech. Meanwhile, speech that surprises the audience, whether it makes them ecstatic or uncomfortable, is an effective action.

September 7. Eventually I'll reach a stage where criticism from readers is completely boring, but at this point it still gives me food for thought. Last week on the subreddit someone accused me of giving up. Where did I go wrong that people I don't even know have an emotional stake in my values and lifestyle? I mean, even my dad let go of that years ago. But the answer is easy: I wrote to be inspiring, something you should never do, while at the same time I wrote about personal stuff. For the story of another guy who made the same mistake, check out the Mack Evasion interview.

On top of this I made another mistake: until recently, everything I wrote was colored by mental illness. My illness is common in this culture, and if I were a better person I would have avoided it, but instead I spent decades doing what people normally do when they talk about politics and society: seeing a moral subtext for everything. The price of shoes is rising in Singapore? Quick, how can I link this to a story about good and bad, or right and wrong?

It's my nature to seek the deepest and most epic story, so eventually I found the critique of civilization, a beautiful story that's also factually deceptive and strategically harmful, and I wrote about this in Beyond Civilized And Primitive. But for a while I believed that civilization is evil, and now I don't even think those two things are real. "Civilization" is a clumsy word that lumps together a bunch of different ways that humans have tried new things, and trying new things leads to mistakes, and "evil" is a mistaken way of thinking about mistakes. The other night I thought of a completely positive definition of "civilization": the increase in elegant complexity of human-made systems. This is not built into history but it's something we can work at.

The irony is that what drew me to the counter-culture in the first place was to answer all the voices telling me I should accomplish something important with my life, when I just wanted to putter around doing my own thing all day -- but now all the voices that accuse me of an incorrect lifestyle come from the counter-culture. Here's a tip, kids: if people envy you, it's a sign you're living well, but if people admire you, you might be in a trap.

By the way, from my perspective the last few years have been really good. My life is more balanced, my writing is more concise, and I'm rebuilding my ideas with more complexity on a healthier foundation. If you see me giving up, I might see you stubbornly bumping against a distracting obstacle.

September 2. Some philosophical loose ends from Monday's big post. Just as light can behave like either a particle or a wave, I think that reality can behave either like it's made of matter or like it's made of mind, depending on how you look at it.

Science is what emerges when many perspectives over time observe the same stuff until they reach agreement. If this consensus-building is in its early stages, or if the nature of the experience makes it impossible in the first place, then observations are not consistent, materialist philosophy is awkward, objective truth is a distraction, and it works better to think of reality as a giant dream that's only partially shared.

But the shared part of the dream is where the power is. It's not strictly true that reality is mindless, physical, and objective, but that assumption has more practical value than assuming the opposite. You could spend 20 years meditating and not get the same insights (or the same dangers) as if you spent five years studying chemistry to learn to synthesize LSD. Even in parts of the world with a philosophical background that puts mind before matter, they don't have schools teaching telepathy or remote viewing or precognition or levitation or other mind-based skills that seem like magic, but using the internet to view a color-enhanced image of Pluto seems totally like magic.

What's going to happen when we use increasingly powerful technologies, achieved through an objective materialist view of reality, to explore the subjective idealist internal world?

One more loose end: a reader sends this NY Times article, Sam Harris's Vanishing Self, about how Harris tries to reconcile consciousness with science, including a shocking argument: not only is the self an illusion, but it's easier to see through it than to see through many optical illusions.

August 31. [permalink] I've been thinking more about a subject I wrote about four months ago in this post: "If this is a mindless universe of particles and waves in which consciousness appeared by accident, how unlucky are we that pleasant consciousness is so elusive?"

My latest angle is: with all the powers of technology, why have we still failed to "game the system" of human well-being? If I told you there was a pill that simply made you happier, with no other effects, you wouldn't believe it. We do have drugs that will enable someone with severe depression to barely function, or someone with AIDS to not die, but it seems impossible to find shortcuts from average to above average. Why can't I take a pill to be healthy without eating vegetables or exercising? Even vitamin supplements, which seemed like a shortcut to health, have turned out to be mostly useless or harmful.

This is easy to explain with metaphysics: God wants you to be a better person more than He wants you to have a good time. I lean toward Taoism: the physical world is like the surface of a deeper reality that we can never fully understand, but if we can partly understand it and go with the flow, life is better. And I think the Tao wants us to try to game the system. That's what everything alive does, and the history of life on earth is organisms finding temporary hacks.

Humans have been extremely successful at hacking the external world, and it's strange, given how well we have mastered nature, that we have failed to master ourselves. This implies that God, the Tao, the metaphysical frontier, is not out there in the universe, but inside us.

Can we explain this through pure materialism? The nice thing about a random and meaningless universe is that it should be completely hackable. In theory, if you imagine the greatest moment of your life, you could experience that over and over forever. You might object that any level of bliss will just become the new normal, but in theory that's just one more obstacle that we can overcome. (For some good sci-fi on this, read Permutation City by Greg Egan.)

These obstacles, in the materialist model, are on the level of human biology. Our bodies have evolved over tens of millions of years to put survival above everything, and feeling good is how our bodies reward us for doing things that tend to keep the species going. In the ancestral environment, anyone who found a way to game the system tended to die without offspring, so the capacity for taking shortcuts has been bred out of us.

Outside the ancestral environment, I can see why it's still hard to hack health: you can patch a broken machine to make it barely work, but the only way to improve a well-running machine is to invent a whole new machine that runs better. But it seems strange that we haven't made more progress at hacking feeling good.

I'm avoiding the word "happiness" because that implies a kind of bland good feeling that a lot of people are against, and maybe that's the root of the issue: we're thinking in terms of whole systems, and we're skeptical of feeling good outside the context of living a good life. To quote Gordon Lightfoot: "Sometimes I think it's a sin, when I feel like I'm winning when I'm losing again."

This also explains why drug addiction happens to people who have given up all hope of living a good life. I would contribute lots of money to crowd-funded research that promised to quickly reset marijuana tolerance so I could get to a [10] twice a week -- but only if I could get back to being myself in between. People who don't like being themselves want to be on drugs all the time.

Anyway, I expect hedonic technology to improve in the coming decades, and I'm curious to see where it works and doesn't work, and if we become more socially accepting of feeling good for no good reason.

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