Ran Prieur

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

- Terence McKenna

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May 25. I'm still working through Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head. Here's an excerpt, The Case for Dangerous Roads and Low-Tech Cars. The idea is that we drive more safely if roads and cars are engineered to fully engage our attention. Crawford's broader idea is that technology is being used to insulate us from the challenges of the physical world, and this not only makes us incompetent -- it makes us depressed, because part of being human is extending our consciousness into physical and social landscapes that set constraints and make demands.

Another way to frame it: the trend in technology is to make practical things boring and idiot proof, so they don't attract our attention but in the absence of attention they still work. Consider the education system, or computer operating systems. Meanwhile, computer games and other forms of entertainment are being skillfully engineered to demand our attention. You can escape the trap by learning to ride a motorcycle, speak a new language, play an instrument, play a sport, make furniture, anything that puts your mind and body out in the world unmediated.

What I don't like about Crawford's book is it has a town hall vibe, pointing out evil and recommending public policy. There's no way congress will pass a law limiting the addictiveness of slot machines or requiring cars to be less squishy. We're facing an unstoppable force like a fire or a plague, and the value of the book is in helping us understand it well enough to survive it. I see this as a psychological version of the popular myth of the apocalypse. Instead of physically dying, most people are going to fade away into technologically assisted adult infancy, while communities based on challenging skills and deep relationships survive and eventually fill in the dead spaces.

Related: I found that car article among lots of other good stuff on No Tech Magazine.

May 22. Loose end from Wednesday: on the subreddit, in Drone Combat and the End of Satellites, polyparadigm argues that even satellites are slow enough to give a disadvantage to human controllers, and the future of drone combat is local control. I wonder if it will eventually be like video games are now: humans give general commands like destroy or engage or defend or pursue, and the AI takes care of the moment-to-moment details. But there's probably some big factor in drone warfare that nobody can even guess in 2015.

For the weekend, something inspiring, I secretly lived in my office for 500 days.

And from the books subreddit a week ago, a thread asking What's the most beautiful paragraph or sentence you've ever read?. The most beautiful paragraph I've ever read is this one from Little, Big by John Crowley:

While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers. Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart. Dr. Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: 'There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.' This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn't be able to remember a word of it, try as he might. Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn't in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said 'Years'.

May 20. A reader sends a fascinating doom scenario. It starts with the idea that drones are the future of warfare. The plot thickens with the observation that military drones normally require satellites. And the speculation is that experimental high-altitude aircraft like waveriders, which are also being developed by China, are intended to shoot down satellites to neutralize the enemy's drones in a war. Enough blown up satellites and we've got Kessler syndrome, a feedback loop where high-velocity space debris hits satellites and makes more space debris, and "the resulting debris cascade could render low Earth orbit essentially impassable."

This is the same kind of mutually assured destruction that has so far prevented global nuclear war. The difference is, if you push the button to start a nuclear war you're killing billions of people and destroying your own nation. A satellite war is merely a big inconvenience, and you might be preserving your own nation. If someone has the ability to blow up all the satellites, and it feels more like saving the world than ending the world, they're going to do it.

The next strategic move is not hard to figure out. How do you win a war after the satellites are gone? Or how do you get in a position where the satellite war hurts your enemies more than you? By having the best drone force that does not depend on satellites. I'm talking beyond my knowledge here, but I'm thinking that drones use satellites for communication with operators and GPS navigation. You could navigate by triangulating from fixed beacons on the ground, and you could communicate globally through massive drone-to-drone networks, but not fast enough for remote operators to make combat decisions. So the likely goal is drones that are smart enough to make combat decisions on their own.

May 18. So I've started reading a book I mentioned a month ago, The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford. Here's a repost of the article. In the book, he starts with the obvious complaint that the world is increasingly saturated with advertisements and other demands on our attention, and then he puts this in an interesting philosophical context. According to Enlightenment metaphysics, your "self" is inside your head, and you make an abstract mental model of the world outside your head and make rational decisions about how to navigate it.

Crawford argues that it's better to think of the self as extending beyond your body into your immediate physical environment. His first example is how short-order cooks lay out the ingredients of the meals they're making in a way that allows them to do the simple motions of cooking without having to think, which frees their limited brainpower to add skill to their work on other levels.

So all these demands on our attention are not neutral opportunities for making choices -- they are more like assaults or invasions, and the more intelligence we have to use filtering our senses to sort out what's useful, the less intelligence we have for complex thought and creativity. Crawford notices that younger people are better than older people at navigating the information shitstorm, and he fears that they have gained this skill by numbing their extended self.

May 15, late. Just changed the default font on this page from Trebuchet to Verdana because I got a new computer. My old Dell Latitude D610 was having intermittent keyboard problems, and I know it was hardware because it also happened in Linux. Used computers have really come down in price -- I got a refurbished scratched Latitude E6400, roughly twice as powerful as the D610, on eBay for only $108. But when I loaded this page the small letter w's looked half invisible, maybe because Windows 7 renders fonts differently than XP. I still think Trebuchet is the prettiest sans serif font, but switching to Verdana fixed the w's.

May 15. Oops, got the dates wrong on the two posts below, just fixed them. I was running a day late this week because Tuesday's post was really hard. For the weekend I'm ready to unveil a personal project, moving my favorite band from my songs page to their own Big Blood page where I can go into much more detail.

And a silly Twitter post: I will fight to support the Oxford comma until I draw my last breath.

May 14. Today, three links about psychology and society. First, another long smart essay by Sarah Perry, Weaponized Sacredness. Basically it's about the hidden power of social rules about what you can and can't say, and how we fight over those rules. There's an observation at the beginning that revolutions happen when people with a forbidden belief reach a critical mass, and then suddenly they start openly believing it, and coordinating actions. I think we are now mostly immunized against this kind of surprise through internet anonymity, which allows people to violate sacredness without consequences. Just do a search on AskReddit for unpopular opinion. If the spy agencies are smart, they will encourage internet anonymity so they can keep track of what people really think.

These Suburban Preppers Are Ready for Anything. Bashing these folks is too easy to be interesting, but I love this line: "preppers emphasize certain threats and ignore others to 'craft a scenario where their preparations can be seen as both necessary and sufficient.'" This is something that everyone does, from doomers to optimists: we believe in a future that makes whatever we're doing feel meaningful.

And a subreddit post with a cynical view of EVE Online and human nature. I would say that the violence and authoritarianism in EVE isn't absolute human nature, but part of the human potential that emerges under a certain set of rules. This is an argument against an idea I mentioned the other day, that we should make political decisions to make society more like a good game.

May 12. I left off last Friday with this quote from Sarah Perry: "For many people, time is not a gift, but a burden, to be filled with alcohol and television and other palliative technologies." My disagreement is not with that sentence exactly, but with two ideas that might seem to follow.

One is that it's bad to have fun, or that all this fun stuff is distracting us from rising up and making a good society -- as if we all agree about what a good society looks like and how to get there. This whole way of thinking is based on an assumption about the purpose of life: that merely having a good time is a bad use of your life, and the correct use of your life is trying to make a better world.

Humans have been trying to make a better world for thousands of years. In many ways we have failed and accidentally made a worse world, so we should be skeptical of making a better world as a noble goal. And to the extent that we have succeeded, we should appreciate and enjoy the ways the world is better, instead of being like an ambitious person who is never happy in the moment. Sometimes the path to a better world is doing something that seems fun and useless, and it leads to somewhere unexpected.

Notice that people who condemn TV and video games and recreational drugs never condemn books. Of course books are better in some ways, but the thing that's best about reading can be good about any entertainment: it can expand your consciousness and show you other ways of being. I think even spectator sports are helpful because they generate public stories that are more honest than the public stories in politics, so someone who follows sports can more easily recognize political bullshit.

A reader sends this article from the Guardian about Eve Online, a massive multiplayer sci-fi game that has outlived similar games by making good decisions to keep players interested. People play games because they're better than society: they're a better fit for human nature. When we understand this, there are at least two directions we can go: make political decisions to make society more like a good game, or make society as stable and harmless as possible, and use it as a platform for artificial worlds.

There's another way to look at the meaninglessness of modern society, and this brings me to the other idea I disagree with: that it's bad to have too much free time, and we need a society in which our time is automatically filled with meaningful activities.

I mean, I wouldn't hate that, but I think it would deprive us of the challenge of finding meaning through personal struggle and transformation. People take wilderness survival classes because they want to learn to find food and shelter through their own skill. If everyone needs a big economic system to give them food and shelter, that system has too much power. So here's my personal vision of how to make a better world: imagine if nobody needed religion or political ideology or economic growth or technological progress or personal status climbing to make their life feel worth living, if none of those things had power over us, because we would all know how to create our own meaning or find it in whatever little things are around us. And a life with lots of free time and no ready-made meaning is a great opportunity to learn that skill.

May 8. New Sarah Perry essay, How Beauty Fits. It's basically a definition of aesthetics based on fit, "the property by which the form and its context are in harmony." The whole thing is worth reading and loaded with good ideas. Here's a paragraph with some thoughts about technology:

Earlier I mentioned time as an important aspect of the human context. Technologies such as washing machines, automobiles, and factories give us more time that we need not spend cleaning, walking, raising food, or making clothes and objects. This gift of time is only a benefit to us if we use it for activities that are more fitting to us, not just as individuals, but also as social creatures. For many people, time is not a gift, but a burden, to be filled with alcohol and television and other palliative technologies.

That's not how I view free time, or technologically-assisted fun, but clearly some people do, and I might have more to say on this next week.

May 6. Thinking more about Monday's subject: Buddhists make a useful distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is when you stub your toe, and suffering is when it bothers you that you stubbed your toe. Pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. And if you practice being in the moment and giving up the desire for things to be different, you can learn the skill of feeling more and more pain without feeling any suffering. If I'm wrong about there being a metaphysical agenda of human learning, then it's possible for pain without suffering to be hardwired into us, or at least programmed into us on the level of culture, so we can do it without even trying.

I don't believe that there can be no pleasure without pain. I think that's a function of personality. Consider the personalities of different dog breeds, mopey insecure Boxers versus ecstatic Pomeranians. Or look at happy animal species like swallows or chipmunks. There must be individual animals who have never felt any pain and are still happier than most humans. Maybe we're just unlucky to have happiness-challenged genetics and culture, and suffering has no meaning or purpose -- it's just a big mistake that we can fix.

There's also a good post on this topic on the subreddit, The Hedonic Anthropic Principle, in which polyparadigm makes the fascinating argument that consciousness can only arise where happiness is challenging -- because otherwise the decisions are so easy that consciousness is not necessary. I happen to think consciousness is universal, but I still accept this idea under a special definition of consciousness: the power to choose whether or not to be in the moment.

May 4. Friday's post got me thinking about the meaning of life. I was writing about three different things -- sweet foods, video games, and marijuana -- that make you feel good, but if you do them too much, you feel bad. Why does reality work this way?

Why isn't there anything that feels good, and continues to feel good the more you do it? And why doesn't it work the other way around? If I slap myself in the face it feels bad, but if I were to do it all the time, it would keep feeling bad, rather than turning around and starting to feel good. Why is feeling good so challenging and feeling bad so easy? And why, as we get better at life, do the challenges seem to increase?

You might try to answer these questions in terms of evolution, or biology, or even the laws of physics. But that raises the question: why is the physical world this way and not some other way? You could call this the Hedonic Anthropic Principle. 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?

I want to believe that life is intrinsically meaningless, because that means it should be possible to game the system, to find an easy trick to feel perfect bliss. If I could listen to my favorite music on a big dose of THC, and somehow keep that feeling forever, of course I would do it, and I hope in a hundred years someone will try to transfer human consciousness to some other substrate where something like that is possible. But I expect them to fail.

To be clear, I'm a generally happy person. But given that I'm a healthy first-worlder with lots of free time, it's strange that happiness still isn't easy, that it has to be maintained by constant awareness and adjustments, like surfing a wave. The more experience I have, the more I think that life does have a meaning: that our minds and our stories are serving some invisible deeper mind (or mindless algorithm) which does not simply want us to feel good, but uses good and bad feelings, like scientists using treats and electroshocks on rats, to lead us toward some unimaginable goal.

May 1. Personal update. Two months ago I mentioned that I was getting serious fatigue, possibly from twice weekly cannabis use. I looked around the internet and found this article, Does Smoking Cannabis Affect Sleep?

Disturbances in sleep patterns can remain for up to five days after use and normal sleep patterns may not return until after one week... Recently abstinent MJ users showed differences in multiple sleep measures compared to a drug-free control group: lower total sleep times, and less slow wave sleep. They also showed worse sleep efficiency, longer sleep onset and shorter REM latency than the control group.

And here's a forum thread with many reports of fatigue during withdrawal: Can quitting weed make you more tired then you felt before hand?

My suspicion was, by using it more than once a week but not all the time, I was in a state of permanent withdrawal. But those reports are from heavy users, and I was only using about a gram a month. So I made three lifestyle changes. First I cut back on sugar: I stopped putting honey on my toast and maple syrup in my morning wheat berries, and following anti-sugar guru Robert Lustig, whenever I eat something sweet, including fruit, I now eat a handful of fiber in the form of Ezekiel cereal. Second, I cut back my video games to one expert Minesweeper win per day, which takes 5-20 minutes depending on luck, and is probably not enough to mess with my reward system. I should also quit browsing AskReddit. Third, I reduced the cannabis to every two weeks, and now I'm ramping it back up to see what I can get away with. Once a week seems to be working.

I also made a batch of cannabutter using this recipe with clarified butter, an infrared thermometer, and no straining because I don't mind chewing toasted buds. I've been alternating between eating and vaping, and don't notice any clear difference. I also couldn't sense a clear difference between the supposedly energizing Sativa strain Cinderella 99, and the supposedly sedating Indica strain Northern Lights. I know that some strains are more potent, but until I see a scientific study to the contrary, I believe that reported differences between the quality of high in different strains is almost all placebo effect.

April 29. My last remaining backup link, from 2013: Self-Cutters May Be Seeking Pain Relief. My theory is that humans have an optimal balance of physical and non-physical pain, and modern society has gone out of balance in minimizing physical pain while ignoring non-physical pain, so self-cutters are trying to get back into balance.

I use the term "non-physical" because it's broader than "psychological" or "emotional", including stuff that we might not recognize as pain, for example that we feel powerless because all our choices are on a superficial level. I wrote about this last fall in the second half of this post. And a reader sends this link, Robert Reich on epidemic powerlessness.

April 27. Normally the last Monday of the month is when I post negative links, but this month I've got nothing, and this could be a slow week. Here's one of my emergency backup links, an article about Cormac McCarthy and how he lived in poverty for many years because his top priority was to have free time to do his own thing.

April 24. Some happy links for the weekend. Meet the School That Hates Rules. There's no economic reason that all schools couldn't be like this. The only obstacle is cultural.

Scythe Demolishes Weed Whacker In Grass-Cutting Competition. Note that this is a scythe champion. Because a scythe is more difficult to use, an unskilled person with a scythe would lose to an unskilled person with a weed whacker. This is why weed whackers will remain more popular, but also why using a scythe is more rewarding.

And some awesome space jazz from 1974: Gong - Master Builder.

April 22. Two reader comments about future eco-feudalism. Anne thinks that Paul Wheaton's ant village challenge sounds like sharecropping. More generally:

The goal of permaculture often seems to be less producing food and other usable products and more about re-envisioning the landed gentry of the late middle ages. You know, the full-service estate model, where everything from charcoal to wagon wheels was produced on a single manor farm, and mostly consumed there as well. Obviously there are different forms of social organization that can make that happen, but it has not escaped notice that the set-up most popular among permaculture dreamers (and a few actual landowners) is for the landowner to serve as a benign autocrat, and unpaid laborers to partake in the bounty of the land.

Owen offers a nicer vision, where all humans will be like aristocrats in self-sufficient households, and robots will do most of the work. I like this, and I think it's realistic on the level of technology, but not politics. Even with robots doing all the work, political power has positive feedback: people who make decisions tend to make them in a way that preserves and increases their power to make decisions.

I also want to say, if you aspire to own land, consider my experience: I've tried growing a food forest on remote acreage, and on an urban residential lot, and because the urban lot has a longer growing season, better topsoil, closer access to soil amendments, and a water hose, my urban plants are growing ten times better than my rural plants with a tenth of the work. Just this week my neighbor's landscaper gave me a cubic yard of grass cuttings that I hauled to a compost pile without having to own a truck. Here's a picture of my back yard that I just took today.

Toby Hemenway wrote much more about this subject back in 2004 in Urban vs Rural Sustainability. Of course you don't have the money to get an urban lot just anywhere. But for the price of adequate rural acreage, you can get a good sized lot with a house in a rust belt city like Detroit, St Louis, or Buffalo.

April 20. Over the weekend I had a visitor, Nick, who was on his way to Missoula to check out Paul Wheaton's ant village challenge. We talked about all kinds of things, and I always forget how much better conversation is face to face than over the internet. I learned lots of stuff about the possible future of energy. For example, you can have a parabolic reflector focusing sunlight on a point through which you pass a fluid that can hold lots of heat, and then this fluid can transfer heat to water, driving a steam engine, so you've got solar power without a high-tech infrastructure making photovoltaics. Nick's utopian vision is a kind of home-scale mini-biosphere or super-greenhouse that would make such good use of sunlight and water that people living in it would be almost completely self-sufficient. This kind of thing will have to be developed if we ever want Mars colonies, but then it would turn out to be more useful to help us live better on Earth.

We also talked about psychedelics, a topic that has come up a lot for me lately. The other day there was a great discussion on the Psychonaut subreddit, inspired by an Alan Watts quote, about the value of psychedelics: is there a simple message that you only need to hear once, or an endless landscape of insights as you explore deeper, or something in between? I still have never used anything stronger than marijuana (happy 4/20!) for two reasons. One is a good reason: that I have never had access to the stuff. The other I've decided is a bad reason: that I can feel good about myself for having trippy insights without any help from drugs -- but of course I've had lots of help from reading the experiences and ideas of other people.

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

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. A reader has set up an independent archive that saves the page every day or so, and I save my own favorite bits in these archives:

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