Ran Prieur

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

- Terence McKenna

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November 30. A couple weeks ago a reader sent a speech transcript by Kenan Malik, Radicalization is not so simple. Focusing on middle class western Muslims who go fight for the Islamic State, he argues that they're not really motivated by religion or American foreign policy; those are tacked-on justifications of a decision they've made for psychological reasons. Like other young radicals, they are searching "for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect."

In this blog post from last month, On the Eating of Lotuses, Timothy Burke makes a similar argument, that Muslims going to fight for ISIS are like young people in the 1930's who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Both are seeking...

the chance to really matter in the world, to put their lives on the line to shape the future in a situation where it seemed to genuinely hang in the balance. They did so in a context where the everyday world around them offered nothing more than stasis and passivity.

Both Malik and Burke have other axes to grind that don't interest me. But last week Anne sent this interview transcript, Can We Construct A Counter-Narrative To ISIS's End Goal? The interviewee, Scott Atran, has surprising strategic advice:

So far, the counter-narratives proposed in our societies have been pathetic. First, they preach things like moderation. I tell them, don't any of you have teenage children? When did moderation do anything? ... We've got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that's hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance.

And in an email about this essay, The Fire Is Here, Anne writes, "it will be fascinating and beautiful to see what we now think of as the left flying banners of irrational mysticism, danger, adventure and attractive madness."

I hope I live to see this, but it might take a while. Consider music: it's easy to make a raw and intense song with negative emotions, and it's easy to make a bland and polished happy song, but a raw and intense happy song is difficult and rare. For similar reasons, it's easier to build an exciting popular movement around destruction than creation -- especially when there's so little room for creation. I think the best ethic for this movement would be negligent creation: focusing on what you're building but indifferent to what gets accidentally destroyed. This is how nature works and humans need to get better at it. I think it will take a deep economic collapse, and a new generation with nothing to lose, rebelling against their Anxiety Generation parents.

November 25. Yesterday on the subreddit, marsomenos commented on Monday's post with some good insights about the medical system.

Also on the subject of health, a new study shows that strong legs are correlated with healthy brains, and they used identical twins to show that the effect really is caused by exercise and not genetics. This reminds me of another study that found a correlation between how fast old people walk and how much longer they're going to live.

And remember that over on my misc page I have some Thanksgiving recipes.

November 23. Today, everyone's favorite thing: negative links! Are Good Doctors Bad for Your Health? Well, a doctor who is bad for your health is by definition not a good doctor. But a study shows that doctors we think are good are not good: heart patients do better when senior cardiologists are away at conferences. So the high-status doctors are worse than the low-status doctors, which is hardly surprising -- the same thing is true for musicians, authors, actors, politicians, probably everyone except athletes. But I'm wondering, were the high status doctors always bad, or were they once the best doctors, and high status made them worse? If it's the latter, I'm guessing it's because they become both inflexible and overconfident: whatever made them successful, they keep doing it, but less creatively and more aggressively. The article suggests that high status doctors do more tests and treatments, which are often harmful.

Another NY Times piece, and this is the last thing I expected as an endangered resource: Why Sand Is Disappearing. There's plenty of small-grain smooth-edged desert sand, but large-grain rough-edged sand is being used up in beach restoration and concrete.

Thanks Tibor for this speech transcript with images, Haunted By Data. Maciej Ceglowski argues that we should stop thinking of data as a resource, and think of it as a waste product. I think he's exaggerating the danger that intelligence agencies will blackmail us, but I like his examples of how tracked people behave worse than untracked people because of how they game the tracking systems.

Finally, this is the best post ever to the Shower Thoughts subreddit, and it leads to dark thoughts about the social and psychological effects of information technology: My activities on the internet are basically the same things I would do if I were a ghost: Listen in on people's conversations, spy on people having sex, and watch whatever movies and concerts I want for free. One of the comments adds anonymous trolling.

November 20. For the weekend, some practical philosophy. I mentioned last week that I was reading David Abram's book Becoming Animal. Someone would have to be stubborn to read the whole thing, because the point is to use poetic descriptions of sense experience to get readers to stop running words through their heads and go out and fully be in the world. There are also occasional philosophical arguments about how our culture got it wrong: the world is not a remote lifeless place that we understand through mental abstractions, but a living thing in which we participate through sense experience. Anyway, once I got the idea I didn't have to read any more.

Then, lying in bed in the morning, I put Abram's idea together with something I wrote back on August 31:

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.

According to modern western metaphysics: 1) The Self is the stream of words and pictures and stories and desires inside your head; 2) the Mystery is the physical world on the outside; and 3) you explore it through your senses. But try thinking this way: 1) The Self is your stream of sense experience, which is already grounded in the physical world; 2) the Mystery is toward the inside; and 3) you explore it by pausing your internal narrative, like holding open a curtain or stilling the ripples on a pond.

You can find that last idea in any book about meditation, but putting it together with the other stuff, suddenly I'm meditating a lot better. Framing the practice as fully outside-in works better than framing it as inside to more inside; and I don't know why they always tell you to come back to your breath, because it feels much more powerful to refocus with my entire body.

November 18. From the Shower Thoughts subreddit: People are talking about tragedies the way hipsters talk about bands. "Oh, you're into that trendy tragedy? Whatever. There's this other tragedy I'm into, you probably haven't heard of it..."

I was tempted to keep writing about political violence, but instead I want to write about popularity and fame. The Greatness of William Blake is a review of a book called Those Who Write for Immortality, which argues that there's hardly any connection between the quality of an author and their future reputation, because William Blake would have been forgotten if it weren't for a couple of dedicated fans who published a biography 35 years after his death. I'm wondering how many other people were equally great and not so lucky. At least writers and painters might leave behind a physical artifact, but consider musicians: before recorded music only top orchestra composers had any way for their work to be preserved. Whoever your favorite musical artist is, there was probably someone equally good in every generation going back thousands of years.

Jessica Livingston is a new post by Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, a highly successful company that funds tech startups. Graham is the famous one, but he explains how his wife is the important one, because she's an exceptional judge of character and she always decided which people they were going to fund: "Jessica knows more about the qualities of startup founders than anyone else ever has." But she has this power through an extreme sensitivity to bullshit, which also makes her fame-proof.

Even at my low level of fame I understand this. The famous "Ran Prieur" is a mythologized fictional character loosely based on the real me. If you want to prevent this, it's not enough to be honest -- to prevent people from seeing Jesus in a tortilla, you have to go out of your way to make it not look like Jesus. I would have had to anticipate exactly how I would be mythologized, and carefully craft my writing to directly contradict those myths, and if I'd done it right I would have earned a smaller, smarter audience. Over the last few years I've been trying to gently filter my audience down to that level, and it's like backing out of a thorny bush, where the thorns are emails and subreddit comments chastising me for not being the bullshit me that I never was.

Finally, I think fame defeated Ronda Rousey. If you don't follow UFC or popular culture, Ronda Rousey is such a dominant fighter that she won her last three fights in 16, 14, and 34 seconds, and seemed unbeatable -- but last weekend she got her ass kicked by 12-1 underdog Holly Holm. If both fighters were unknown, I think Rousey would consistently beat Holm by playing to her own strength, waiting for a perfect takedown and then using her elite judo skills to get a submission hold. But that's not what "Ronda Rousey" does now. Rousey the real person was possessed by Rousey the icon, who is no longer content to win by patience and craftiness but has to be some kind of superhero. So she played exactly to Holm's strength, getting into a slugfest with a champion boxer and disciplined hard hitter. If Rousey wants to regain and hold the title, it's not enough for her to improve her boxing -- she has to re-ground herself psychologically.

November 16. I don't want to say too much about the Paris attacks because it's not a subject I want to have a long discussion about. But I'll repost this link from last month, Terrorism is not about Terror, which I would title more precisely as: "Non-government organizations that attack civilians for political goals are not really acting for political goals, even if they think they are, because as political strategy their behavior makes no sense." Their real motives are social: to belong to a group that tells a good story about itself and performs actions that feel powerful and meaningful. The author compares them to long term World of Warcraft players whose motivation is "to continue playing with their guild."

Also here's a reddit comment by a Muslim on why they attack, with more discussion below it. To me this seems like a special case of a more general problem: that we are not yet biologically adapted, or even culturally adapted, to living in large complex societies. If your enemy is a hundred warriors with spears, it makes sense to attack those people, but if your enemy is the foreign policy apparatus of western civilization, attacking humans is the wrong move.

I'm just curious, hypothetically, what would happen if Islamic extremists attacked the technological infrastructure: power plants, oil refineries, electrical substations, railroads, fiber optic lines, server farms, cell phone towers, container ports. I'm not sure it would help them in the long term, but it would certainly be more disruptive and it could potentially crash the global economy.

Why are they not attacking the infrastructure? Because attacking humans feels more meaningful and theatrical. But that's an aspect of culture. A wild speculation: if immersion in technology changes global culture, and we all start thinking about things instead of people when we think about big systems, then sabotage will become the normal action of marginalized groups, which will place a limit on technological complexity. If the control systems want to prevent this, they have to make technology invisible, so that no matter how complex it gets, we still see the world in terms of people.

November 13. As usual, lighter stuff for the weekend. The Best Offense in College Football Is Also the Laziest. This is one reason it's better to follow sports than politics: sports are flexible enough that you can see people think of better ways to do things and then actually do them. In this case, conventional teams tell their players to go all out all the time, while Baylor calls a pass play for only one receiver and the others relax and save their energy -- or sometimes they pretend to relax to fool the defense.

Other reasons sports are better than politics: they're less rigged, more transparent, and honest about the fact that you have no influence. Following the world of politics is like following the weather: it's a vast incomprehensible system in which you are powerless, but you have to keep an eye on it to be prepared for the disasters and opportunities that it creates.

Some happy news: How beekeeping jobs are giving ex-cons in Chicago a second chance. "Graduates of the program have a recidivism rate of only 4%, compared with the national average of 40% and the state average of 55%." Partly this is because the program teaches stuff like how to make a resume, and I think it's also because bees are wild animals, and engaging with nature keeps us sane. Related: yesterday from the library I got David Abram's book Becoming Animal.

And some music! My girlfriend has put together a playlist of her top 100 songs. Her taste is a lot different from mine -- if my songs page had not been influenced by her stuff, the only overlap would be Led Zeppelin.

November 11. I've just read the book A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. Well, not every word. It's one of those books with fifty good pages of content and hundreds of pages of repetition and filler to get it to book length. I recommend reading the first section on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and skimming the rest.

Anyway, the ideas are important. In the 21st century we still have a 19th century view of how ordinary people behave in a disaster: that they panic, run around aimlessly, are more selfish, and are unhappy. The evidence shows exactly the opposite: people calmly come together and self-organize to help each other out, and the experience of building a social system out of free action, driven by necessity to do things with concrete value, makes them much more happy than in their normal lives doing meaningless chores in a bureaucracy. Some people, like Dorothy Day, have been inspired to spend their lives trying to make ordinary society more like a disaster utopia. And I was surprised to learn that Mexico used to be even more corrupt, before the 1985 earthquake gave people enough sense of their own power that they could make some reforms.

Meanwhile, the ruling powers become more dangerous, because they're threatened by people taking care of each other and making them irrelevant, and also because the chaos gives them room to push their top-down utopian visions. Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine is all about this.

I wish, instead of the boring obligatory sections on 9/11 and Katrina, Solnit had gone deeper into the question of why it's so hard to make a really good society last. She briefly mentions Burning Man and Rainbow Gatherings, and I wonder what exactly is stopping us from making a Rainbow Gathering permanent? If we had sci-fi food fabricators, and no interference from the authorities, would it still fail because of mass psychology? And could we remove that limit by changing our culture?

November 9. Going back to the subject of play, on the subreddit a reader posted this Wikipedia page about the Hindu concept of Lila. I love this quote:

Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity.

This leads to the big question of all religion: if the root of this world is something good, how did this world get so bad? My speculative answer is that it happened through misunderstanding around play and abuse. Someone thinks they're having fun and causes someone else to feel pain, and if they're friends they work it out; but as we live in bigger systems where our actions ripple farther, these play-pain links remain unresolved and become normal, and finally we all feel like we're just trying to have a good time in a world that's senseless and cruel. Or worse, we suffer so much pain that we can no longer generate actions from playfulness, only from seriousness, which is more dangerous.

Related: a few days ago there was a good reddit comment about how buildings got shitty:

Check out old commercial buildings, and you will notice that many of them have the name of the original owner ornately displayed, often beneath the cornice. The manner in which the ego of upper class individuals manifests itself has changed throughout history, and in the past century it appears that the ego of developers took the form of building something beautiful and slapping your name on it. Developers these days just want the payout so they can spend their money on other things, presumably boats, cars, clothing, etc.

Cars and clothing are middle class goals. I think very rich people see increasing wealth as an end in itself. They're in basically the same mental state that you can experience yourself by playing a good computer strategy game -- I recommend Lords of the Realm II or Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. But even in those games you get to build castles and city improvements, so maybe real estate developers are in an even narrower mental state, more like a slot machine addict.

I'm also thinking about the deeper cultural changes that are leading everyone's values away from the physical world and toward abstractions. This must be an effect of the information age: that when we seek improvement, we seek it in ways that are increasingly unreal.

November 6. Loose ends on Wednesday's post. Eric has convinced me that it was unfair to accuse uneducated people of being less mentally adaptable. In this context the important thing about low education is that it goes with low social class, which makes life harder in almost every way, including doing more physical work, which leads to chronic pain and dangerous painkilling drugs. And it's no surprise that Prescription painkiller deaths fall in medical marijuana states.

Fun stuff for the weekend: Water Is Scary is a trending subreddit for short videos of stuff like giant waves and floods.

Origami Conspiracy is a recording project of a guy in Oregon. He sounds like Pete Yorn in space, and my favorite track is 1996.

And two weeks ago on reddit there was a massive post about Shoegaze Essentials. After some listening, I've picked out three albums to listen to closely (high) this weekend: Treasure by Cocteau Twins, Souvlaki by Slowdive, and Bloweyelashwish by Lovesliescrushing. [Update: Treasure is excellent, especially Pandora, but I wish they had heavier bass and edgier vocals. Souvlaki has bad mixing that is covered up by the style, and Neil Halstead is a bad singer-songwriter, but I love the near-instrumental Souvlaki Space Station. Bloweyelashwish is pretty but mostly forgettable. My favorite pure shoegaze album remains Yo La Tengo's Painful.]

November 4. Lots of buzz this week about the discovery of rising death rates among middle-aged white Americans. This can't be explained purely by economics, because other demographics in the same bad economy are still living slightly longer. The least interesting explanation is probably the most accurate: a lot of these deaths are from opioids that have become much more common in the last 15 years, especially among the people who are dying.

But I can tell a story tying it to American culture: These people are 1) not college educated, which means they're less mentally adaptable, 2) middle-aged, which means they're old enough to have grown up thinking they were going to be richer some day, and 3) white, which means they see themselves as Clint Eastwood-like isolated warriors who don't know how to create personal value outside of a competitive environment in which they have turned out to be the losers. The scary thing is that America could fall into a feedback loop, where the worse it gets, the more people support exactly the wrong radical politicians who make things even worse.

New subject: Argentina may have figured out how to get GMOs right. So far, GMO's have been a tool of economic exploitation: the company that makes the modifications will choose the modifications that require farmers to keep buying seeds and chemicals from that company year after year. I don't want to pick on Monsanto as especially evil -- in 20 years Amazon will probably be doing biotech in a way that only helps you if you have Amazon Prime. Anyway, governments are starting to subsidize modifications that make crops grow better in the absence of corporate dependence and ecological destruction.

Related: Bread Is Broken:

Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish­ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab's mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts.

November 2. I plan to just post links this week. Locked doors, headaches, and intellectual need is related to the motivation subject from a month ago. The idea is that we learn something better if we learn it as a solution to a problem that we already have, and the author uses examples from game design, math education, and programming.

The Worldbuilding Stack Exchange is a fun reddit-like page where people submit crazy science and fiction questions and other people answer them. (Thanks Tim.)

Zeno effect verified: Atoms won't move while you watch. The article doesn't even touch the philosophical implications. We've learned to accept this kind of thing in the quantum world, but suppose it's happening in the human-scale world all the time. You could say there's no objective scientific evidence of that, but science and objective truth are methods for defining what happens when everyone is watching. And if macroscopic phenomena know who's watching, then they can reveal that they know who's watching when only a few people are watching, and increasingly hide the fact that they know who's watching as more people watch.

October 30. It turns out this week's big ideas were in a book called Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, published in 1944 and written in 1938. A reader linked to a pdf in this subreddit post. I haven't read much yet, but I noticed that Huizinga uses children as an example of what real playing looks like. That doesn't work in the 21st century because even children's activities are too structured now. I had to use a cat. And maybe that's why so many Millennials have social anxiety.

Another reader mentions an ancient sport in Myanmar (Burma) called Chinlone. That link goes to a five minute video, and there's also a documentary, Mystic Ball. It's basically hacky sack with a larger bouncier ball and dance moves.

New subject: Greater than the sum of its parts is about an awesome new coyote-wolf-dog hybrid that is spreading through eastern North America. Like a wolf, it can hunt in the woods and is big enough to take down a small deer. Like a coyote, it's highly adaptable and can live around humans, even in large cities. It's not just the animal itself that's interesting, but that something genetically stable, and more fit than its ancestors, can appear so quickly.

October 28. Continuing on Monday's subject, Anne points out that there non-authoritarian uniforms: "What about hockey, or punk kids, or clowns?" Also we're coming up on a holiday where people wear costumes. I've always liked the occult aspect of Halloween and not the costume aspect. When I think about it, this is because the occult is about transforming physical reality, while costumes are about transforming social reality. To me, physical reality is boring and needs shaking up, while social reality is already too challenging without getting even more shifty.

Last week, right after reading the Graeber essay, I went with Leigh Ann to a catsit where her job was to play with a cat for an hour. (Before you say that's the best job in the world, she also had to clean the litter box.) And watching the cat chase a toy on a string, I thought, how often do modern adult humans get to play like this? This must be a big reason we have pets. And it might be why some people like alcohol so much, and why alcohol has different psychological effects in different cultures: in anti-playful cultures, alcohol is like a costume that makes playfulness socially acceptable.

Even when we're "playing" sports or games, we rarely feel like a cat playing with a laser pointer. Only sports where the rules themselves are improvised, like Calvinball, can reach that level of play, and as sports get more elite, they get more serious (but here's a fun moment from last weekend's Clemson Miami game).

Video games can focus and expand our minds in valuable ways, but I can't think of a single one that's truly playful. Is this a failure by human game designers, or is it built into the hardware? Would we have better artificial intelligence if we judged and improved it by looking at playfulness, instead of using the Turing test which is based on symbolic language? Or do we need to start over and build AI from a foundation that cannot be reduced to numbers and logic?

Even board games and card games are more about competitive focus than strict-definition play. One partial exception is Cards Against Humanity -- and that's an interesting name given the idea that modern humans might be the least playful thing in the universe. Another exception would be a pencil-and-dice role playing game with a really good game master. How hard would it be to build an AI that could design and improvise a virtual world more creatively than the best human, and what would happen to society if we could do it cheaply?

What can we do to make ordinary life more playful? Today I rode my bike to the store, and it occurred to me that there's a lot more room to playfully ride a bicycle than drive a car. Play is about sudden unpredictable movements, and if you try that in a car you're going to crash. So the most playful society is the one that can tolerate and use the most surprising behavior.

By the way, a famous book on same kind of thing is Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. Here's a pdf link.

October 26. Earlier this month when I wrote about school shooters and other non-state mass-killers, I had a tangential thought: these people are extremely serious. No school shooter would ever be described as playful or fun -- except maybe Eric Harris, which is why other shooters worship him. And it's the same thing with animals. A dog that won't play with you is much scarier than a normal dog.

This explains why we're afraid of people in uniform -- or we should be. A uniform can turn a normal fun person into a machine-like agent of an insane bureaucracy, and if the uniform includes a gun, it can turn them into a killer. The only thing scarier than a person turned into a killer by a uniform, is a person who can do it without a uniform, which is why governments want us to think about criminals and terrorists.

Getting deeper into the subject of play, last week a reader posted this 2014 David Graeber piece to the subreddit, What's the Point If We Can't Have Fun? I think David Graeber is the best public intellectual in the world. I discovered him back in 2006 through his short book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, the first smart thing I ever read about how to look to tribal people to improve our own world. More recently he wrote a radical history of economics, Debt: The First 5000 Years, and he has a new book about bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules.

Anyway, in the essay about fun, he writes about human attempts to interpret playfulness among wild animals. When industrial age biologists see animals playing, they assume it must have some hidden utilitarian value -- but this assumption is purely cultural, a projection of our selfish and mechanistic modern society onto nature. Graeber looks at some other perspectives that could put play at the heart of reality:

Unlike a DNA molecule, which we can at least pretend is pursuing some gangster-like project of ruthless self-aggrandizement, an electron simply does not have a material interest to pursue, not even survival. It is in no sense competing with other electrons. If an electron is acting freely -- if it, as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, "does anything it likes" -- it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake -- which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.

This gets more interesting the more you think about it. If electrons are playing, and bacteria and insects and squirrels are playing, and tribal humans are playing most of the time, and modern humans are hardly playing at all, then what happened? One answer is that this is a dead end and we should all go back to the stone age or go extinct. My answer is more optimistic: we are a work in progress, an attempt by universal play to manifest at higher levels of complexity, or within our particular mode of consciousness.

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