Ran Prieur

"He hauled in a half-parsec of immaterial relatedness and began ineptly to experiment."

-James Tiptree Jr.


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November 26. Weird links for the weekend, starting with a review of a fringe science book from 1896, The Human Soul, featuring lots of trippy primitive photographs.

Bill sends this piece about Colin Wilson and The Robot, in which the "robot" is the human brain's ability to make conscious behaviors unconscious. This allows us to do routine physical tasks with much more efficiency, but then the robot goes too far, numbs our perceptions, and makes us feel less alive. I'm not convinced that we're talking about only one thing here, because when I'm really high, which supposedly shuts the robot down, I can still type.

Transcranial brain stimulation can reduce disgust and moral rigidity. Transcranial means it's done with electromagnetism through the skull, without breaking the skin. I think this kind of thing is going to be huge in the coming decades.

Pretty good Reddit thread, Police, security guards, paramedics etc - Have you ever been called out only to realise it was a seemingly paranormal incident?

And from today, a funny Reddit thread: Have you ever written down a 'genius idea' while drunk/tired/otherwise confused, then gone back to it later to find it was complete nonsense? What was your genius idea?

November 24. Depressing Reddit thread, What is an overly-romanticized job? The key comment:

Reading this thread, I'm starting to think work in general is overly romanticized in our culture. To the point where people sacrifice their relationships, their time, and their happiness in pursuit of a misrepresentation of a career they chose. I think a lot of people feel so committed to their choices and pressured by society that once they realize that their job isn't what they expected, they just white knuckle it to retirement.

And yet it strikes me, a lot of these terrible jobs would be pretty good at a slower pace and for fewer hours. The fact that we're still in such a hurry, with so many labor saving devices and so much material wealth, suggests that the hurrying is built into our culture on a deeper level than technology and economics.

Related: In Portugal, it's now illegal for your boss to call outside work hours.

And here's a job that more people would have, in a better world: Coral Farming to Help Restore Dying Reefs.

November 22. Experts From A World That No Longer Exists is an awkward title for a valuable idea:

Henry Ford was a tinkerer. He revolutionized the factory floor by letting his workers experiment, trying anything they could think of to make production more efficient. There was just one rule, a quirk that seemed crazy but was vital to the company's success: No one could keep a record of the factory experiments that were tried and failed.

Things that failed in the past might succeed now, because "other parts of the system have evolved in a way that allows what was once impossible to now become practical."

The article is about technology and economics, so the examples are stuff like the success of Chewy after the failure of Pets.com. But I'm thinking about other kinds of things, and I don't want to get too specific, but maybe some social experiments that failed in the past could work in the future, because of changes to the underlying culture. Or ambitious lifestyle changes could become possible through different moment-to-moment mental habits.

A couple more links. Deaf Football Team Takes California by Storm. It's paywalled, but this is the key bit:

Many teams try to use hand signals to call in plays, but they are no match for the Cubs, who communicate with a flurry of hand movements between each play. No time is wasted by players running to the sidelines to get an earful from the coaching staff. No huddle is needed.

The coaches also say deaf players have heightened visual senses that make them more alert to movement. And because they are so visual, deaf players have a more acute sense of where their opponents are positioned on the field.

And the informal economy is alive and well in this Reddit thread, What is the strangest thing you "have a guy" for?

November 20. Over on my favorite songs page, I've just posted a new playlist, in which I alternate songs from my two favorite years, 1970 and 2014.

November 18. Back on October 27, I wrote, "Inside every human are two opposite drives. No, it's not love and death. It's recognition and surprise." It turns out, even Freud was thinking the same thing. Jake writes:

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he introduces the ideas, he tries to make clear that they actually refer to "surprise seeking" and "compulsive repetition" respectively.

Freud uses "death drive" for compulsive repetition because, looking at amoebas, he believed that repetitive, "automatic" movement was what defined "inorganic" (or dead) things, while surprise seeking is a specifically "organic" or "living" behavior.

Related: The First Horror Movie Written Entirely By Bots. If automatic movement can't be surprise seeking, then why is this so funny? It's because the bot is reflecting our own cliches back at us, but getting them slightly wrong, in ways that we wouldn't think of.

November 16. Continuing from yesterday, two comments on subworlds serving worlds. Matt writes:

The most I've ever been changed by a "game", I think, is acting training. The semester in college where we did Meisner acting games was somewhat destabilizing for a lot of us, because they prime you to spit out the truth, to not hide your emotional reaction to anything, and to pay attention to others' authenticity. Meisner training is something that serves that subworld of acting really well, but can cause social upset because our culture abets white lies, bullshit, and emotional restraint.

Unwashed mendicant writes (lightly edited):

I think the best example of a fictional world that has the potential to inform the physical isn't exactly a fictional world, but a set of practices intended to run that world. I'm thinking of the Old School Renaissance of D&D.

Modern D&D has grown more bloated and waddling as each edition goes on. It takes hours to make a character. There's a big incentive to keep player characters alive, since so much effort goes into making them. Dungeon Masters are expected to carefully craft scenarios that match the abilities of the party. Player abilities are there to support combat. The Adventures are scripted. The Dungeons are linear. The experience feels like walking through a hallway knocking things down.

As a reaction to this we have Old School Renaissance. Rulebooks are generally free or cheap. Play is fast. You roll up a character in seconds. You don't have to read many rules -- you just say what you want to do and if it's reasonable it happens.

Player abilities and magic items are there to support exploration and problem solving. Combat is very deadly, and experience points come from finding treasure, so it's smarter to avoid combat. DMs are encouraged to think on their feet and improvise. The rules encourage emergent play with many random elements that can surprise the DM as much as the player.

I often walk away from an old school D&D session with fresh ideas to bring to my actual life; ideas on how to simplify, to make meaningful choices, to encourage agency and choice in myself and those around me, to be open to opportunity, to think on my feet, and move in a creative flow.

November 15. Continuing from Friday, I wrote, "In the worst case, VR will lead your body astray like Facebook leads your mind astray." But we're talking about two different kinds of misrepresentation.

As I said a few months ago, nobody ever believed anything unless they got something out of it. It's normal for humans to ignore evidence about social issues so that we can belong to a group. It's less common for someone to tie their whole identity to something like the correct way to swing an axe.

So I expect VR representations of physical skills to get steadily closer to reality. Where there is distortion, it will be in social aspects of physical skills, like the attitude of your partner in VR porn.

On another angle of the subject, why is it that video games have always been associated with nerds? I think it's because there's a lot of variation in the human ability to narrowly focus. I can play a game with low-res graphics in the center of my eyesight, and block out everything else. Some people can't do that. They're not going to get really absorbed in something unless they can focus widely. Now, with devices that fill the peripheral vision and engage the arms and legs, everyone can be a gamer.

Assuming there isn't a tech crash, the coming decades are going to be interesting. Other "planes" aren't just something from fantasy novels. You're on another plane right now, reading this. Things bubble up from the human subconscious, take shape in cyberspace, and influence the physical world.

In the long term, every subworld must serve the world that contains it. I think the best way game worlds can serve the physical world is the way imagination always has: by showing us how things could be better. So, if you could step into any fictional world, which one? And how far can we go making our own world more like that?

November 12. I've been skeptical about the value of virtual reality, because I can play a good PC game from the 90's, like Lords of the Realm II or Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and get just as absorbed as in a new game with 100 times as many pixels. So what's the point? But Leigh Ann wanted to get an Oculus Quest 2, so this week we got one and tried it out.

I think it's revolutionary, not because it adds more detail, or because it fills in your peripheral vision, but because it involves the body. One of the most popular games, Beat Saber, can be a workout of arm-swinging and squatting. From a review of A Township Tale:

Axes won't chop trees with a series of unfocused blows but must instead be carefully aimed and leveraged, slicing into the same point time and again. Lighting a fire, meanwhile, requires you to knock two bits of flint together over dry grass.

In many cases, you need to consider the angle and speed of your approach. Swing a hammer at the wrong angle when crafting and you can hit nails in the wrong direction or even break materials. Chiseling away at wood needs just the right touch or you might end up making a soup ladle by accident.

Of course, you're not learning from the real world, only from some programmer's guess about the real world. In the worst case, VR will lead your body astray like Facebook leads your mind astray. But in the best case, with increasingly good real world modeling, you could get halfway to a difficult physical skill with a lot less investment.

New subject. My favorite sport is women's soccer, and the NCAA tournament starts today. I like top-tier college soccer better than pro or international, maybe because the substitution rules allow the players to play harder more of the time.

Here's a highlight video of a really fun player, USF's Sydny Nasello.

Penn State's Kerry Abello can do really long flip throws.

And last week my home team's most dangerous player, Alyssa Gray, hit a 35 yard golazo.

November 10. Just submitted to Weird Collapse, Imagination isn't the icing on the cake of human cognition. It's the cake: "The more we understand about the minds of other animals, and the more we try (and fail) to build machines that can 'think' like us, the clearer it becomes that imagination is a candidate for our most valuable and most distinctive attribute."

Maybe humanity's great mistake is trying to make our dreams physically real. Consider all the imagination that went into a place like Disneyland, and then the nightmare of the place itself -- never mind all the dystopian constructions that are supposed to be practical. I'm thinking the best human society is the one that gives the most citizens the most hours of unfettered useless dreaming.

Loosely related, an interesting piece about insincere imagination: If You Have Writer's Block, Maybe You Should Stop Lying.

November 8. Still on semi-vacation from blogging. Here's one negative link: Examining interactions between narcissistic leaders and anxious followers on Twitter using a machine learning approach

And one positive: Scotland wants to rewild its famous wilderness

November 5. Music for the weekend. At the end of last year, I said that the best song of 2020 is surely something I haven't heard yet. I still think that's the case, but among the songs I have heard, this is my new favorite: Pozi - Whitewashing. Pozi is an English post-punk trio with no guitars, only drums, bass, and violin. Their newest EP doesn't have anything as catchy as Whitewashing, but I love its sonic complexity.

November 3. No ideas this week, so more links, starting with two about user-friendly devices: the PinePhone and the Framework Laptop.

A reader sends this page about the The Catacombs of Solaris. "The goal of this game is to find your favourite room in the catacombs. It's a perspective maze that plays with your perception of 3D space on a 2D screen."

Moving from tech to ecology, this is a summary of an interesting paper: Foraging humans, mammals and birds who live in the same place behave similarly.

And Genetic Goldmine in Earth's Harshest Desert Could Be The Key to Feeding The Future. The idea is, as a lot of the planet turns into a desert, we could stick desert genes in food plants so they'll still grow.

November 1. I have a new rule, that if I post a negative link, I have to balance it with a positive link. So, negative: a Hacker News thread about how U.S. house prices are rising exponentially faster than income, with lots of smart discussion about why that's happening and how we could do the economy better.

Positive: a long Reddit thread, What does America get right?

Negative: The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Leaf Blowers. Even if we fix the toxic emissions with electric leaf blowers, they're still used to move leaves off lawns, when it would be ecologically better to let them stay.

Positive, or at least it will make you feel better: Therapists, what is something people tell you that they are ashamed of but is actually normal?

October 29. One more loose end from Monday. The words "bullshit" and "myth" probably have too much baggage for how I was trying to use them. What I'm trying to get at is, there are different ways that something can be misrepresented, even opposite ways. If politics were sex, then CNN is public school sex education, and Qanon is hentai.

Unrelated stray links:

The Guardian reviews a new book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow:

Humanity was not restricted to small bands of hunter-gatherers, agriculture did not lead inexorably to hierarchies and conflicts and there was not one mode of social organisation that prevailed, at least until thousands of years after the introduction of agriculture.

On the contrary, they maintain, prehistory was a time of diverse social experimentation, in which people lived in a variety of settings, from small travelling bands to large (perhaps seasonally occupied) cities and were wont to change their social identities depending on the time of year.

Posted to Weird Collapse, an interesting essay about vestigal shamans. The idea is, the weird people we have now, and the ways they serve society with their weirdness, are not that different from shamans in low-tech cultures. At the end the author offers some advice, including "Don't retreat into fantasy worlds." I would say, plunge confidently into fantasy worlds, but don't get stuck there. The Tao Te Ching said it best: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light."

A good Hacker News thread on Willingness to look stupid. From the top comment:

I brace myself to be the idiot. I'm going to waste everyone's time asking questions that everyone knows the answer to, and I just got looped in, so everyone's going to feel like they need to walk through all the super-obvious stuff to satisfy the one guy who didn't do his homework.

So I start asking questions, and slowly begin to realize that nobody in the room has any idea what they are talking about. That there are fundamental misunderstandings and misconceptions about existing systems. And, naturally, it turns out that the questions I have are questions that other people have.

Finally, New study calls into question the unique benefits of Western classical music in psychedelic therapy. It's a small study, but it seems that overtone-based music works at least as well as classical. Here's an overtone music playlist.

October 27. Continuing from Monday, inside every human are two opposite drives. No, it's not love and death. It's recognition and surprise. I'm reading Lisa Feldman Barrett's Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, and lesson 4 is about prediction. Noticing something that your brain didn't predict, and integrating it into your mental models, takes cognitive effort, and actual physical energy. Recognition is easy, which is why, to reach the largest audience, you have to give them what they expect.

In every big budget movie, one surprise is permitted. It's called the "twist", and it retroactively changes what you thought was happening. While the content of the twist is supposed to be a surprise, the reveal itself is pure formula. Personally I prefer micro-scale surprise, where lines of dialogue and character reactions are unpredictable. But writing that way takes more creativity, and makes less money, so it's uncommon.

Jacques Ellul pointed out that propaganda can never be surprising. Now, with the internet, everyone can be their own propagandist. Whatever you already believe, plug it in and there's your confirmation. Of course, in practice, people do this in groups. And I wonder, when people complain about "bullshit", if what they really mean is other people's bullshit, the pain of encountering another universe of confirmed expectations.

I have an idea for an impossible reform, where news stations are required to choose a certain amount of content at random. Out of all the footage and interviews that any journalist thought was worth recording, just pull something out of the hat to show to viewers. That would be a lot more dangerous and real than the way they do it now.

My personal tactic is to practice looking for the unexpected, to seek the experience: "Hey, there's something I didn't already think was there."

October 25. Inspired by this Weird Collapse post, There's simply too much bullshit today, I want to try to define and explain what we call "bullshit".

It's basically the same thing we call "propaganda", except that bullshit need not have a bias. It can be made by people who are competent and well-meaning, who just want to get an important message to the largest possible audience. Like cafeteria food, bullshit is exciting to no one, so that it can be tolerable to everyone. Like Hollywood in the age of test screenings, bullshit is a filter for anything weird or challenging.

An explicit definition: Bullshit is information pre-digested to demand the least cognitive effort so it can reach the most people.

The most realistic cure for bullshit is media decentralization, but it's still not realistic. Could we split up Facebook into a hundred fully autonomous platforms? Could we split up CNN into a thousand local stations, each getting their info from a completely unfiltered feed of whatever anyone uploads? That's basically what the internet is already. We're still in the earliest stages of figuring out how to moderate universal access to powerful information technology.

I also want to distinguish bullshit from myth. Bullshit can be fully fact-checked and still be bullshit. It can seem false while being technically completely true. Myth is indifferent to fact-checking. It is designed to feel true, even if it's based on no evidence whatsoever.

October 22. Thanks Alex for sending this reddit thread, What are hobbies? It's all about how much better creative activities are if you keep them separate from money, but how the economy is so tight now that few people can afford to do that.

Not to end the week on a low note, this is a rare thing, a song that is really good, popular, and from this century: The Joy Formidable - Whirring

October 20. Stray links, starting with two on transportation. This is the high end of stealthy vehicle living, a studio apartment in a box truck.

And Heavy-Lift Cargo Drone Makes First Public Flight. That link goes to the Hacker News comment thread. It can haul 200kg 40km, or 440 pounds 25 miles. I predict, by 2100, most rural freight and travel will be done by air, because it will turn out to be cheaper than maintaining roads and bridges. Even in places where it is cheaper to maintain roads and bridges, there may not be the political will to do so.

And four medical links, starting with this depressing Reddit thread, What are some of the darker effects Covid-19 has had that we don't talk about?

The Implications of Low Cholesterol in Depression and Suicide. "The brain is the most cholesterol-rich organ in the body, and depriving the brain of essential fatty acids and cholesterol can lead to detrimental health problems."

Black mamba venom is better painkiller than morphine

Psychedelic use associated with lower odds of heart disease and diabetes. "The researchers controlled for age, gender, marital status, race, annual household income, level of education, engagement in risky behavior, and the use of other types of drugs. But... 'The direction of causality remains unknown.'"

October 18. Still continuing on emotions, there's a growing ambition of using AI to detect them. My first question is, what is the context in which this would happen? Why not just ask people what they're feeling and expect them to answer honestly?

Emotion-detecting AI implies a context of mistrust. It would be done by states that don't trust their citizens, or corporations that don't trust their workers, or social media platforms that don't trust their members.

The science is clear: emotions are not the kind of thing that AI can detect. They're so soft-wired that even electrodes in our brains could not unlock their mystery. What AI can detect, and it's getting better, are facial expressions. Facial expressions are not emotions, because they map differently to emotions in different cultures, and because they can be faked.

Ideally, it would be illegal to use AI to detect facial expressions. More realistically, it will be done in special cases, like in the theater of security, detecting shifty eyes in airports. But I want to jump to the worst-case scenario: Everywhere you go, there will be cameras on your face, feeding computers that might reward or punish you for your expression.

Already on social media, everyone is carefully crafting their profile so that they appear to be more happy, successful, and normal than they really are. And in the context of these performances, everyone feels like a weird loser. Expression-detecting AI has the potential to make this nightmare panopticon universal. In the future, everyone will be famous all the time, if "famous" means that your persona is crafted for an audience of strangers.

I see three broad strategies for dealing with this as an individual. 1) Perform the rewarded expressions, and really believe that that's how you're feeling. 2) Perform the rewarded expressions, but keep track of the difference between who you're pretending to be, and who you are. This takes more cognitive energy than the first strategy. 3) Live as if nobody is watching, and accept the punishment.

October 15. Continuing on emotions, this Lisa Feldman Barrett TED talk explains that "emotions are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment," turning vague and simple physical sensations into specific and complex emotional states.

Putting this together with the idea that educated westerners are unusually preoccupied with emotions, and also that we're more sedentary than other societies, this is my hypothesis about modern mental illness: that a lot of it is caused by feedback loops, emotions untethered from physical actions, just chasing each other around the brain and inevitably veering off into places that feel bad and are hard to get out of.

On top of that, for the last fifty years our culture has told us that emotions should never be suppressed, so now they're all running around like unruly children.

This is my new tactic against anxiety: If I'm having an emotion that feels bad, I ask if it's connected to something I'm doing, physically, right now. And if it's not, I rein that sucker in. That makes it sound easy, but fully developed emotions can dig in hard in your brain. The trick is to catch them early, and that might require a lot of time observing their life cycle.

I'm still skeptical of "meditation", when it's defined as blanking your mind and focusing on your breath. All the breath-focusing I've done has never taken me anywhere. But maybe the greater value is not where it takes you, but where it stops you from going. The best way to still an emotion that's not connected to something you're doing right now, is to focus on something you're doing right now, and your breath is always there.

October 13. Exposure to authoritarian messages leads to worsened mood but heightened meaning in life. Can't we just be in a good mood and have life be meaningless?

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.

I've always put the best stuff in the archives, and in spring of 2020 I went through and edited the pages so they're all fit to link here. The dates below are the starting dates for each archive.

2005: January / June / September / November
2006: January / March / May / August / November / December
2007: February / April / June / September / November
2008: January / March / May / July / September / October / November
2009: January / March / May / July / September / December
2010: February / April / June / November
2011: January / April / July / October / December
2012: March / May / August / November
2013: March / July
2014: January / April / October
2015: March / August / November
2016: February / May / July / November
2017: February / May / September / December
2018: April / July / October / December
2019: February / March / May / July / December
2020: February / April / June / August / October / December
2021: February / April / July / September