Ran Prieur

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

- Terence McKenna

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October 1. I'm back in Spokane. Finally found out (thanks Lacy) that John Robb's Global Guerrillas blog is back. If you're into Enneagram, you'll understand when I say that Robb is a rare type 3 doomer. Where the usual type 6 doomer would be like "Oh noes, the world is going to hell," Robb is more like "Wow, look at all these new opportunities for ambitious people to have influence way beyond their apparent power." Anyway, for a while he was writing about resilient communities, and while I agree they're a good idea, I'm a type 5 and want to read the newest ideas about the craziest ways the world could change. Robb has been back to writing about that stuff for a couple years now. Among his many good ideas, my favorite is that the big threat from information technology is not one super-intelligent computer, but trillions of stupid ones.

Two more doom links. America is rapidly aging in a country built for the young. It's about housing, and how too many houses are isolated in the suburbs, require lots of yard work, have lots of stairs, and who's going to live in them when the Baby Boomers have to move out? I imagine that Millennials could buy whole neighborhoods of decayed McMansions and turn the houses into barns and the yards into food forests... except they don't have any money.

A new study finds a link between depression and terrorism. I don't like the framing of the article. "Terrorism" is a faddish propaganda word that asks us to reduce all political violence to a cartoon of a bomber in a turban. But if you step back from this moment in history, there may be a deeper truth here. Imagine that in 500 years, Islam and other sky father religions are dead, the whole world is secular and westernized, but depression is worse than ever because a high-tech security system gives us no participation in power. As people become more unhappy, they have a growing need for the world to change, until even huge risks and destructive changes seem preferable to continuing the nightmare of ordinary life. Any ideology that fills this need can overthrow a depressed society, the same way that a dry forest can be burned by any spark.

September 29. The last Monday of every month is Finger Pointing Day. This month's links have more depth than usual. Battered Worker Syndrome is a good rant about the new corporate culture of not caring about workers. Except it's mostly not about the syndrome, in which workers "fawningly suck up to the hierarchy." It's more about how workers correctly respond by slacking off and gaming the system.

Does responsible consumption benefit companies more than consumers? I first wrote about this issue seven years ago in this post about garbage laws and the organization Keep America Beautiful, which has completely succeeded in making us think of saving the planet as the responsibility of individuals, not politicians and businesses.

From 2005, Are the desert people winning? According to a study of more than 400 cultures around the world, desert cultures are bad, forest cultures are good, and the desert cultures have taken over the world. At the same time, I think we're slowly shifting toward forest culture, or there wouldn't be so many of us who agree that forest cultures are better. Or if you want to factor out forest and desert, you could say that nasty cultures beat nice cultures in a conflict, but that successful nasty cultures gradually become nice.

Finally, Wolves cooperate but dogs submit. It also mentions a study in which wolves and dog puppies were good problem solvers, but adult dogs were stupid because they have learned to obey humans instead of thinking for themselves. So even dogs can be harmed by culture. (By the way, I follow a fringe theory that dogs are not descended from wolves, but from now-extinct wild dogs. I wrote about it in this post in 2008.)

September 25. I'm in central Florida staying with Leigh Ann's family. This is my first trip to Florida and the landscape is impressive. The giant oak trees covered with spanish moss look like something out of Lord of the Rings. Anyway, here are some unrelated links, and I'll try to post again on Monday.

You've probably seen this article about how a low dose of lithium is good for your brain. I'm wondering if my water filter is taking it out, and if I should get a looser filter or drink more tap water.

Psychology article, Personhood: A Game for Two or More Players. It doesn't have any new information, but offers an interesting way to think about human socialization.

Rethinking the origins of the universe. A physicist claims to have mathematically proven that it is impossible for black holes to exist. The article does not clearly distinguish between the infinitely dense singularity at the center of a black hole, and the gravity that prevents light from escaping, so I'm not sure if it's still possible to have one without the other. But if a singularity is impossible, that casts doubt on the Big Bang theory.

September 22. A reader sends this extract from the book Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado, explaining why poor people don't plan long-term, basically because they're in a closed loop of being too tired and stressed in the present to sacrifice any of the present for the future.

I should say, in the context of Friday's post, that my own writing is aimed at people who have the time, the energy, the education, and the support network to break the script and live well on the fringes of society. Most poor people are completely fucked beyond my ability to help them. At best, I'd like to help change our cultural assumptions, so that we move sooner to the belief that we all have an unconditional right to comfortable survival, without having to "earn a living" by obeying the people and systems that have the money.

But here's a thought experiment: how could we get a guaranteed basic income that somehow is still evil? Imagine if the largest retailers arranged with the government so that instead of getting $10,000 cash, you got $10,000 in credits that you could use at Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks, Comcast, and so on. All your physical needs are met, but not your emotional need to participate meaningfully in the economy. You can't support your local coffee shop or bookstore, and if you're an entrepreneur or small business owner, you can't serve the poor because they can't pay you -- you have to serve the rich. This leads to cultural inbreeding, as the only way to join the world of money is to echo the values of the world of money, and that world might veer off into insanity. Even with no economic poverty, there can still be great political poverty.

September 19. So a couple weeks ago I got an email from a reader that once again made me regret my famous essay "How To Drop Out". What I regret is the title. I should have called it something like "How to gain the benefits of industrial civilization without being in a position of forced obedience." To use the phrase "drop out" was a short-sighted marketing move that got me a lot more readers, but has linked my popular image to the poisonous myth of the heroic puritan, someone whose goal is not to enjoy life but to avoid guilt through an impossible lifestyle that has no connection to a society that is viewed as a cartoonish monolithic evil.

This is related to another mistake I made not once but over and over again: using the word "civilization". I agree with John Zerzan that symbolic language was invented for deception -- and it goes beyond deception of others into accidental deception of the self. We have needs, and we use language to tell ourselves stories about what we need, and then we are drawn toward stories that use language with more elegance and economy, so that we veer off from remembering what we need into telling beautiful stories. The critique of civilization is a great story, but now I find it more accurate and helpful to not blur together schooling and cars and other things I hate into an abstraction that commands me to also hate ice cream and airplanes and good TV shows.

My less-wrong story about what I need is more free time and fewer obligations, without having to go hungry or sleep under a bridge. This is a hard battle to fight, but in the context of yesterday's post, it occurs to me that it's not as hopeless as fighting for increasing financial success.

September 17. Two doom links. The Dying Russians by Masha Gessen examines the mysteriously high Russian death rate. In the absence of war and epidemic disease, nothing like this has ever happened, and it's hard to tell why, but it seems to be psychological. Older Russians are so unhappy and hopeless that they're losing the will to live, which leads them to die more in many ways. The Russian experience is unique, but I have a guess at the deeper pattern, which could happen anywhere: a generation is raised to see the meaning of life in a particular thing, and then that thing is taken away. Maybe this is why Americans continue to believe in upward social mobility.

Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat? This long article is about Nick Bostrom and other thinkers who see the danger that a powerful nonhuman intelligence could destroy humanity by seeking a seemingly benevolent goal without common sense. Isn't that what we're already doing with the global economy, a machine-like system programmed to maximize economic growth?

September 15. Had a great time at the permaculture convergence. This was the third one I've been to, the most rural, and by far the most casual. I spent a lot of time napping and hanging out by the pond. If anyone I met there is checking out my blog, here's my top bar hive page, and a page about building a cobwood hut. Also, I didn't mention this at the convergence, but I will sell my land to a permaculturist for below market value.

A few things I learned: 1) Making cheese is easy, but making a particular kind of cheese is really hard. 2) Milk kefir has more probiotics than kombucha, which has more than water kefir or yogurt. 3) Agritrue is a new system for food producers to describe their practices in detail for consumers, which is better than the big agribusiness system of hiding the details of how they meet an increasingly meaningless organic certification. 4) If you're making cannabis edibles or salves, the OXO ricer is a good tool to squeeze the oil out of the buds, and here's a pdf article with detailed instructions. 5) The entire state of Montana is being gentrified.

More generally, I love hanging out in the country with no responsibilities. While permaculturists have many of the answers for how to improve society, we are nowhere near making the convergence experience permanent. Like Burning Man or Rainbow gatherings, it's a glimpse of a utopia that is hundreds of years in the future if it's even possible. Personally, rural living only makes me feel better for a few days, but I have not yet come to the end of lots of free time making me feel better, which is why I live in the city now.

September 10. I'm taking the rest of the week off from blogging, and going to the local permaculture convergence this weekend.

Also I've been elected to the listentous subreddit for this month, so I'll be submitting a song almost every day, and the other submitters this month look really good.

September 8. Busy this week, so I'm just purging my link queue with little or no comment. The terror and the bliss of sleep paralysis. "Sleep paralysis has tormented me since childhood. But now it's my portal to out-of-body travel and lucid dreams."

Algorithm recovers speech from vibrations of potato-chip bag filmed through soundproof glass. That is, a good enough computer with a good enough camera can watch the bag vibrating from sounds in the room and figure out the sounds.

Also related to hearing, Nerve implant retrains your brain to stop tinnitus. I predict that technologically assisted physical brain retraining will be a big thing in a few decades.

Reddit comment from last month about how a well-organized consumers union could force Comcast to be responsible.

And some great life philosophy, Seneca on busyness and the art of living wide rather than living long:

Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another's, and their walk by another's pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.

September 5. As usual, by Friday I'm burned out on the Big Subjects. Leigh Ann and I have been watching Heroes, the 2006-2010 TV show. Everyone agrees that only season one is good, but I think even season one is poorly written, and was carried by great ideas which got used up. Also we've finally started watching Game of Thrones, and it's, eh, pretty good. Visually it's perfect, and there are some fun characters, but the big themes are family and loyalty/betrayal, both of which bore me. My favorite thing is how the world starts with zero magic and the magic gradually creeps back in.

On my favorite songs page, "Argyle Square" by Orphans & Vandals is currently sitting at number one (and I'm tempted to raise "Terra Firma" to number two). Aaron mentions that Bob Geldof had a similar sound back in 1990, in a few songs on his album Vegetarians of Love. Check out No Small Wonder and Thinking Voyager Two Type Things.

And here's a simple and oddly compelling song that I've been meaning to post for a while, John Matthias - Pre-Loved Vintage. I'm a sucker for polyrhythms and I'd like to put the bit from 2:28 to 2:51 on an endless loop.

September 3. One nice thing about the internet is that it's humbling. I used to think I was really smart, but now I can see that there are people out there who are much smarter, like Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm, or reddit user Erinaceous, or Sister Y, who blogs at The View from Hell and Carcinization. And most recently (thanks Gabriel) a Finnish guy who calls himself VIznut and does a blog called Countercomplex.

In VIznut's August 5 post, The resource leak bug of our civilization, he starts out talking about how vast increases in computing power are being mostly wasted, and argues that the waste "is nothing utilitarian but a reflection of a more general, inherent wastefulness, that stems from the internal issues of contemporary human civilization."

The bug: Our mainstream economic system is oriented towards maximal production and growth. This effectively means that participants are forced to maximize their portions of the cake in order to stay in the game. It is therefore necessary to insert useless and even harmful "tumor material" in one's own economical portion in order to avoid losing one's position. This produces an ever-growing global parasite fungus that manifests as things like black boxes, planned obsolescence and artificial creation of needs.

Wow, Ivan Illich lives! Then he goes into more detail about "black boxes". Ground-level processes that humans used to do on their own, are automated into modules, which are stuck together with other modules into bigger modules. In theory this makes life easier but really it makes life less meaningful:

People who have a paid job, for example, can be regarded as modules that try to fulfill a set of requirements in order to remain acceptable pieces of the system. When using the money, they can be regarded as modules that consume services produced by other modules. What happens beyond the interface is considered irrelevant, and this irrelevance is a major source of alienation. Compare someone who grows and chops their own wood for heating to someone who works in forest industry and buys burnwood with the paycheck. In the former case, it is easier to get genuinely interested by all the aspects of forests and wood because they directly affect one's life. In the latter case, fulfilling the unit requirements is enough.

So what can we do about this? VIznut suggests that hackers build popular movements of making useful tools and art "with low-complexity computer and electronic systems." I never would have thought of that, but I still don't see it happening. What I see instead is more and more useful stuff (from programming to wood-chopping) being automated, as more people turn their attention to virtual worlds designed to seem more meaningful than reality ever could. And when we finally get burned out at the farthest limits of artificial superstimuli, then we must either go back to painful unrewarding reality or go extinct, and one of those will be much easier.

Or, before we get too far on that path, reality will catch up to us in the form of the collapse of the global economy: Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse. I still see no evidence for a technological collapse, but maybe we'll have no time for Minecraft version 27 because we'll be too busy foraging bugs and tree cambium -- or building low-tech drones to fight the high-tech drones of occupying armies.

September 1. Today, some content from readers. Anne has been sending out big emails about ebola, and I've decided not to go deeply into that subject, but I'll summarize her most interesting point: that the greatest danger of ebola is not that people will get sick and die, but that fear of the disease will enable extreme repression the name of quarantine.

A month ago a long-time reader made a good blog post, which only last week showed up on the subreddit when it escaped reddit's overzealous spam filters. It's called Mass Trolling In The Arena, The Way Great Civilizations End Up In The Ditch Of History, and it draws some connections between ancient gladiatorial games and contemporary internet-based cruelty.

And Gene, an accomplished guitar player, sent me a long email on the subject of motivation, with some ideas I've never seen before. Condensed excerpt:

To master any truly difficult skill it's not enough to just want it; you have to be obsessed. If you have to force yourself to pick it up you're screwed; if you have to force yourself to put it down you know you're on the right track.

You told me that the only thing you've ever had to force yourself to stop was video games. Ask yourself: why exactly are video games so addictive? Of course it's because of the constant reward system. Every thirty seconds you get a reward of some kind. The next question is: how can I duplicate this experience in other areas?

When I was learning to play, I always broke any challenge down into it's smallest possible chunks. A fast lick might seem impossible taken as a whole, but how difficult is it to play the first three notes? If I play those three notes over and over for ten minutes, always keeping it down to a tempo at which I can play it correctly at all times, will I be able to work them up to performance tempo in those ten minutes? Assuming you haven't chosen something way beyond your level, the answer is probably yes!

By doing it this way, you're creating a lot of very small, quick successes for yourself. If you set yourself a goal to bring those first three notes up to performance tempo and you succeed in just a few minutes, the flush of success releases endorphins in the brain. If you continue to duplicate that experience every few minutes you get addicted to practicing.

Talent is an intuitive grasp of rapid learning. Fortunately you don't really need that intuitive understanding... that's what a teacher is for! Unfortunately most teachers haven't analyzed their own formative years sufficiently to understand the ingredients of their own success as players. I have consistently found that students who listen to me and practice as I described above will progress ten times faster than anyone else.

It's also true that these are the students who become obsessed. I've believed for years that they listened to me and practiced in this way because they were obsessed, but since I've come to believe that I had cause and effect confused. They become obsessed because they practice this way!

August 29. Some light stuff for the weekend. If you can't choose wisely, pick at random. The article explains why filtering out bad reasons can be more valuable than listening for good reasons, and there are some stories about how tribal cultures get advantages from randomness, and some suggestions for our own society. I seriously believe they should decide elections by picking a ballot at random (one for each race or issue). Over time, this would reflect the will of the people, and there would zero incentive for tactical voting.

The non-diet diet: the case for eating whatever you want. Well, it's not that simple, or we would all eat ice cream and chips. It's an idea that's been around for a while called "intuitive eating", and it takes some practice to listen to your body in just the right way. I sort of do this already, and it seems like it would be easy to experiment on yourself, but hard to prove that it works for any other person.

The color of every photo on the internet blended together is orange, and the best thing is, nobody knows why!

Finally, I've done a lot of work lately on my favorite songs page, including numbering my top ten, making special sections for instrumentals and radio hits, and mostly bunching multiple songs by the same artist.

August 27. Monday was supposed to be finger-pointing day and I forgot all about it. Lots of links this month:

This reddit comment argues in detail that the Obama administration has made a complete 180 on Guantanamo Bay.

Scientists track gene activity when honey bees do and don't eat honey, and they found enough differences to think that feeding bees sucrose and high fructose corn syrup could be a big factor in their decline. One data point: I feed my bees only honey, and have not lost a hive yet.

A fun rant against American consumer culture, What can House Hunters teach us about ourselves?

And this very serious rant was probably last month's most popular reddit comment. A combat veteran admonishes a young recruit for wanting to get combat experience.

What I've learned from two years collecting data on police killings. Mainly that the entire government, from top to bottom, will stall, lie, and break the law to prevent the collection of data on police killings. The data itself is also unsurprising: most urban deaths are black men and most rural deaths are mentally ill men. And here's an article about police killings on fivethirtyeight.com, with links to other sites that are gathering data, and some analysis, including a death toll of around 1000 per year.

Why the Ice Bucket Challenge is bad for you: because ALS is relatively rare, already well-funded, and there are other charities where your dollar does a lot more good.

This reminds me of an idea in the book Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita: that every attempt to "raise awareness" only adds to the numbing information overload, and overall makes us less aware. Related: a study on information aversion finds that "people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts." I would go farther: it seems like, after basic survival, blocking awareness of unpleasant reality is the main thing that people pay for.

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:

January - May 2005
June - August 2005
September - October 2005
November - December 2005
January - February 2006
March - April 2006
May - July 2006
August - September 2006
October - November 2006
December 2006 - January 2007
February - March 2007
April - May 2007
June - August 2007
September - October 2007
November - December 2007
January - February 2008
March - April 2008
May - June 2008
July - August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November - December 2008
January - February 2009
March - April 2009
May - June 2009
July - August 2009
September - November 2009
December 2009 - January 2010
February - March 2010
April - May 2010
June - October 2010
November - December 2010
January - March 2011
April - June 2011
July - September 2011
October - November 2011
December 2011 - February 2012
March - April 2012
May - July 2012
August - October 2012
November 2012 - February 2013
March - June 2013
July - December 2013
January - March 2014
April 2014 - ?