Ran Prieur

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

- Terence McKenna

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April 29. Last week I posted this link, People Want Power Because They Want Autonomy, and after some reader comments and some thinking, my interpretation is much more cynical.

The first problem is that our language misrepresents the whole issue. Why did they use the word "autonomy" and not the word "freedom"? Because "freedom" has too much baggage -- you can't take the word seriously when there's a building called the Freedom Tower. But "autonomy" means basically the same thing and only hides our lack of understanding.

The difference between "freedom" and "power" seems clear: freedom means doing what you want, and power means telling other people what to do. But what if you cut someone off in traffic? To you, that feels like freedom, but to the other person it feels like power. More generally, freedom and power are propaganda words for talking about conflicts of interest. If there is no conflict of interest, if you want to do something that doesn't bother anyone else in any way, then you can just do it -- you don't need to play the "freedom" card to justify yourself.

Going back to the study, "people want power because they want autonomy," all that means is that we want to have our way without visibly stopping other people from having their way. "Power" sounds like fun, but in practice, unless you're sadistic or psychopathic, it's unpleasant to make other people do stuff they'd rather not do. This is why, when society has a power inbalance, it tends to hide it from the people who have power, because they want to feel like all they have is freedom. This is how Paul Graham could write his infamous defense of wealth inequality -- he was thinking of wealth as a benign freedom to buy luxuries, and not the power to make people without wealth serve his interests.

Is it always painful to tell other people what to do and be told what to do? In my experience it is, but we're living in a difficult time. In the best tribal cultures, the chief has no coercive power, but serves as a moderator and motivator, organizing people in doing stuff they want to do anyway, and working out all the conflicts between different people's interests. This is nothing like our word "power" or our word "freedom" -- we have no language to grasp a healthy social order.

This also explains individualism. Of course disconnected selfishness is not going to build a good system -- but it's a valuable tool for breaking down bad systems. If a social order is so dysfunctional that a war of self-interest seems preferable, then it deserves to fall apart.

I don't want to return to low-tech tribal living, because the worst tribes are like North Korea without plumbing, and they tend to conquer the happier tribes. The nice thing about technology is that it gives an advantage to less repressive societies, because they're more creative and adaptable, and they can channel this through technology into political influence.

Bottom line: the best place to draw the line is not between power and freedom, or individual and group, but good social order and bad social order; and this difference has something to do with equality of influence, absence of punishment for saying no, and the awarding of positions of authority based on the ability to use authority for the good of everyone.

April 27. I want to write more about authority and autonomy but I'm still not smart enough to put it all together. So today I'll write early about music. My latest obsession is Melanie Safka, who recorded under the name Melanie and had a few radio hits in the 70's. I even bought one of her albums once and failed to appreciate it because I hadn't developed an ear for the human voice as an instrument. Last weekend I rediscovered her through a stroke of fate, when Leigh Ann watched a movie (Northern Soul) with Brand New Key in the soundtrack right after I vaped some weed.

I'm in awe of how much power and warmth Melanie's voice has while still having a sharp edge. Here's a good live video of Look What They've Done To My Song Ma, and her strongest original is probably Lay Down. My favorite song of all time, Big Blood's Song For Baltimore, is basically the next generation of Melanie's cover of Ruby Tuesday, or it's like an extension of the peak verse of Lay Lady Lay.

April 25. I'm not smart enough to do an original post today, so here are more links. From the subreddit, The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality:

Experiment after experiment has shown that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space.

I've reached a similar conclusion from deep study of subjects like paranormal phenomena, fringe science, and even conspiracy theory. Never mind quantum particles -- even if we're talking about human-scale objects and historical events, we're just patching together the illusion of an objective world from experiences that are fundmentally inconsistent.

How the Apocalypse Will Bring Out the Best in People, and I've written about this before in the context of the book A Paradise Built in Hell.

When violence does occur after a disaster, it is often a result of authorities or elites overreacting, fixating on protecting property instead of lives, misunderstanding situations they encounter, or simply getting frustrated that the recovery is happening without them.

And more happy news, Meet 'Bike Batman': Seattle's vigilante reuniting stolen bikes with their owners. The interesting thing is that he's cooperating with the police, and in theory the police could do exactly what he's doing, looking at bikes reported stolen and then looking for matches on Craigslist. But for some reason, probably misdirected funding, it's easier for an independent person to do that.

April 22. Miscellaneous fun stuff for the weekend. The other day I linked to the AbandonedPorn subreddit, which is not actual porn but cool photos of abandoned places. Earlier this week someone posted the creepiest photo I've ever seen, an old ruined house in the woods in Denmark. If you scroll down [link fixed], they go inside the house, which is disappointing because nothing can match the first photo.

An adventure playground is opening soon in New York City. It gives kids more freedom and chaos than an ordinary playground, and this might be part of a trend away from the extreme safety and structure that American kids have endured for the last few decades.

When Dating Algorithms Can Watch You Blush. This is not about scary technology (yet) but about the mysteries of the subconscious. OkCupid worked well for me, but its biggest weakness is that it relies on people to know consciously what they want in a partner, and it turns out they're mostly wrong, and a big part of what makes two people connect is stuff like body language and sentence structure. The next generation of dating sites will try to model this with computers.

My new favorite sport is women's soccer. Leigh Ann got me into the national team and now I'm following the NWSL, which just started its fourth season last weekend. On the schedules page you can find links to all the games streaming live on YouTube. I haven't picked a favorite team yet. Everyone loves the Portland Thorns and they're loaded with talent, but I'm leaning toward the Houston Dash because of their exciting young offense.

What I like best about soccer is what most people like least (other than diving): scoring is really difficult. You can't just impose your will on a defense -- you have to notice the tiniest openings and go through them like an electric spark, and most players can't do it even if they're great athletes. It seems like there are more creative attackers in the women's game than there used to be. Check out this video of Rachel Daly's NWSL debut.

April 20. Random stuff. My blog is quoted in a new book called Fixing Broken Robots. I haven't read it yet but it looks really good.

A long reddit comment answers the question, How are the countries involved in the "Arab Spring" of 2011 doing now? Almost all of them are as bad as they were before, or worse. The big exception is Tunisia, and here's an article about the Tunisian national dialogue quartet, four groups that worked together to keep the country stable and democratic through the transition.

A new study shows that People Want Power Because They Want Autonomy. So I'm wondering: What's going on with people who get power but aren't satisfied and keep grabbing more and more power? Do they really want autonomy, and more power gives them more responsibility and less autonomy, but they don't understand this, and if they did, they would seek autonomy without power and everyone would be happy? Is making a better world really that simple?

I think sometimes it is. This time of year I see all the work my neighbors are putting into their lawns, while my back yard is prettier with less work and less water. That's a cherry tree in the center, a peach and apricot back behind it, a strawberry patch below it and to the right, raspberries on the right against the fence, tomato starts in the lower left, and the purple flowers are grape hyacinth that survive the dry summers and spread by themselves. Of course the yellow flowers are dandelions, which are completely edible, attract pollinators, and improve the soil. They're one of the most helpful and beautiful plants in the world, and yet people see them as a pest and try to eradicate them (and fail).

For me this goes beyond horticulture and into metaphysics. Why do people go out of their way to make the world more difficult? Why are the most controlled places so ugly while neglected places are often beautiful?

I'm an optimist. A pessimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds and it still sucks, and I think it takes a lot of effort to make the world this bad and it's still pretty good. (See my quotes page for more about this.) But when I think about it more, making the world worse is physically difficult and emotionally rewarding, because you're destroying what you've found and replacing it with what you've made, while making the world better is physically easy and emotionally painful, because you're expanding your consciousness to integrate the alien.

April 18. Busy and distracted? Everybody has been, since at least 1710. This Aeon essay raises important issues but I don't like the way it's written. On the first reading I thought it was just a laundry list of intellectuals complaining about inattention, and on the second reading I noticed that the author is trying to make the point that attention is a form of submission to authority.

I would frame it like this: with the Age of Reason in the 1700's, human culture broke free from the Church and ancestral traditions, and turned into a free-for-all, in which one secular authority after another has tried to create Utopia by forcing everyone to pay attention to what it thinks is important. This struggle continued through the 20th century, but the problem is that you can't force attention over the long term -- it has to be earned. People need to feel immediate benefits from what they give their attention to.

The word "moral" appears, in some form, 33 times in the essay. I don't know what "moral" even means, but I know what it means in this context: people appeal to morality when they perceive a conflict between the best thing to do and the fun thing to do.

Here's my new definition of Utopia: any human system in which the best thing to do and the fun thing to do are the same thing. I think some hunter-gatherer tribes (but not all of them) came pretty close to that, and we're still clumsily learning how to do it in large complex societies.

Back to the subject of attention, it leads straight to the subject of social media, video games, and other high-tech superstimuli. At first this is puzzling: attention-grabbing distractions are more powerful than ever, but the authorities are complaining about them less. I mean, lots of people say that smartphone apps are destroying civilization, but they're shouting into the wind. The most powerful institutions in the world -- Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple -- are not fighting against distraction but using it to increase their own power. The war on distraction is over and distraction won!

What happens next? Like oil, human attention is a finite resource, and its extraction is well into diminishing returns: if there were twice as many ads, we would not give twice as much attention to ads, maybe only ten percent more (and with declining income we're not even buying as much advertised stuff). And just as oil is being used to manufacture junk and push air out of the way of cars, the powers that own human attention are not channeling it to make the world better. I'm tempted to predict doom, but then, the powers that own human attention have almost never used it responsibly, and we're still doing okay.

April 15. Two articles about the same guy, An Experimental Autism Treatment Cost Me My Marriage and What It's Like to Wake Up From Autism After Magnetic Stimulation. The second is longer and goes into more detail about how difficult this guy's whole life has been, often for reasons other than autism. But the broadly interesting thing is that he gained the ability to sense the emotions of others, and it turned out they were mostly bad emotions. I've noticed something similar in my much slower process of becoming more aware of subtext in communication. I used to think communication was 90% on the surface, and now I think it's 90% under the surface, but damn, it's like a snake pit down there.

New subject, a fun reddit thread for doomers, What catastrophe is waiting to happen? The big one at the top is a direct hit from an x-class solar flare.

And some music. This month I've gotten heavily into a 1970 album called Here In the Land of Victory by Rex Holman. Holman was an actor who played lots of small roles in Hollywood westerns, and he made only that one album at the age of 42. His voice is an acquired taste, but the more I listen, the more his music seems deeply and courageously weird, intensely psychedelic in a subtle way. Nobody will agree with me when I say that Rex Holman makes Gordon Lightfoot sound like elevator music and Nick Drake sound like a whiny kid. The link above goes to the whole album, which is not all great, but the best songs are Come On Down and Red Is The Apple.

April 13. Going back already to Siderea, a couple weeks ago she had a major three-part post on The Two Moral Modes. That's Part 1, and here are Part 2 and Part 3.

It starts with Donald Trump, and the idea that he's merely an opportunist, who has noticed a massive unmet demand and is giving people what they want. So even if Trump goes away, that energy is still there waiting for the next leader to channel it.

Siderea thinks that Trump is channeling a moral standard that she calls Mode 2. In Mode 1 we have the same moral standard for all humans, while in Mode 2 there's an in-group and an out-group, and the out-group are not exactly people, more like a resource to be exploited. Here's a good explanation from Part 3:

It probably has never occurred to you, personally, to go someplace far away, where the laws of your country which frown on such things don't extend, and kidnap someone, or several someones, for your personal use: to sell, to exploit for free labor, to torment for kicks and giggles... If you're operating in Mode 1, it's so beyond the horizon of anything your moral sensibilities suggest is even remotely acceptable in interpersonal conduct, that it simply has never come up to be considered, much less rejected.

But people did this. Actual human beings actually did this, in great numbers. And people continue to do this, and various variations on it. It behooves us to ask What were they thinking, that they thought this was an okay thing to do?

Liberals are wrong to say these people are motivated by hate. From Part 2:

Lions don't hate gazelles. In fact, if you could ask them, I think lions would tell you they love gazelles -- they find them delicious... What the cheering throngs at Trump's rallies are feeling is joy. They're delighted by the uplift of being told, both implicitly and explicitly by Trump, that their Mode 2 morality is good, worthy, and valid... They're thrilled by the prospect of an overturn of the Mode 1 hegemony in American culture, and the possibility of making Mode 2 the dominant norm of the land.

This reminds me of a general process in political revolution: if there's something people believe strongly, but they're not allowed to say it publicly, they still think it privately, and it simmers under the surface until all at once it becomes acceptable to say it publicly, and then all the people who believe it can organize to overthrow the old system.

But I'm wondering how many Trump supporters really want to openly subjugate others, and how many just want to feel like they're participating in a political system that has been blocking them from participating -- and for superficial cultural reasons they like Trump better than Sanders.

Here's a fascinating analysis from fivethirtyeight, The GOP's Wacky Delegate Rules Are Helping Trump. The Republican rule-makers decided to award delegates based on the total population of each district, not the Republican population. So Republicans in heavily Democratic districts have way more influence, per person, than Republicans in heavily Republican districts. These supervoters love Trump, and I think it's not because they want to own slaves -- it's because they feel beseiged by an alien culture. (Although maybe, because they're in Mode 2, they assume that being a cultural minority means being a slave.)

I'm guessing that only 10-20% of Americans are in full-on Mode 2 morality, but I wonder how many others would switch over if it became socially acceptable, like it did in Nazi Germany. A deeper question is whether we're making moral progress. In ten thousand years will we still be flipping between the two modes, or will we be permanently and universally in Mode 1? And if we get there, where will we go next?

April 11. I've just discovered a great internet thinker, Siderea, whose blog is called Sibylla Bostoniensis. So, mixed in with the other stuff I write about, I'll be gradually going through her history and summarizing my favorite bits here. Today, a post from January on Class in America. This stuff is all completely obvious when I think about it, but hardly anyone thinks about it, so it seems fresh and important.

The big idea is that social class and economic class are different things. Economic class is how much money you make, and social class is actually culture. It's forbidden in America to talk about social class, so people talk around it (badly) by talking about economic class:

This rhetorical substitution of economic class for social class has a particular virtue for people in more privileged social classes: it allows them to discuss the lack of privileges of the lower classes in a way that holds them blameless of bigotry. So it is okay -- preferred, even -- to discuss the difficulty of the poor to become non-poor due to lack of resources: how terrible it is that the poor are thwarted in their efforts to improve their employment by not having the money for interview clothing, for transit to better jobs, for qualifying education or training. Real problems all -- but also handy substitutes for discussing the much, much more uncomfortable topics of discrimination against job applicants and promotion candidates for having an accent, a hair-do, a sense of style, an address on one's resume that is lower-class.

Siderea goes on to cover several angles of the subject of moving from one social class to another, and this makes me think of a whole other subject:

People really hate changing their culture, and lots of political issues come down to cultural standoffs, where two cultures are incompatible and neither side wants to change, like when immigrants don't want to assimilate, or when old people don't want to adopt the values of young people. It's not always clear who's right, and sometimes the disagreements are over silly things like how to pronounce words.

But it gets interesting when political and technological changes favor certain cultures. The internet helps cultures that value transparency, and undermines cultures that value secrecy. Birth control helps cultures that value sexual freedom, and undermines cultures that want to harness sex to family obligations. I can even put my support for an unconditional basic income in cultural terms: it would undermine a culture of striving for conventional success, and feed a culture of learning to navigate free time.

April 8. Some stray links where I have little or nothing to add. The sugar conspiracy is a long article about how nutrition scientists got it backwards for 40 years, telling us that fat was worse than sugar, despite never having good evidence. The deeper message is that science doesn't work as well as it thinks. Eventually the evidence wins out, but in the short term scientific truth is more a function of politics, culture, and ego. A good book on this subject is Science in Action by Bruno Latour.

Two more negative links, both by Bruce Levine: Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill, and Living in America will drive you insane -- literally.

An argument for an unconditional basic income that I haven't seen before, A Basic Income Is Smarter Than a Minimum Wage:

By guaranteeing basic survival, a government provides a service as necessary as, say, policing the streets or fighting off foreign enemies. At the same time, once this service is provided, the government can get out of trying to regulate the labor market: Its goal of keeping people fed and clothed is already achieved.

Something fun, Every Meal In Wuthering Heights Ranked In Order Of Sadness. In college I was obsessed with Wuthering Heights and took four different classes that covered it. People think it's about romantic love when really it's about how modern society is a prison for the soul -- and apparently also about crappy food.

Finally, one of my favorite reddit threads ever, with hundreds of creative answers to a good question: You just died. God escorts you to a door, telling you that this is your own personal heaven. What's behind your door?

April 6. I've got some good stuff in my link bin, but first I have one more thought on motivation: that it only becomes a problem in a special case, which is historically rare but really common right now. We have social pressure to do certain things, but no social support.

Imagine you're stocking shelves at Walmart. Everyone knows the job sucks, so the managers take care of motivation: they give you a clearly defined task and if you do it you get money and if you don't you get fired. I would call this vertical external support, and it gets the job done, but the better system is horizontal external support: you're working with your friends toward a clear goal, and the motivation is that you don't want to let them down, and also they're right next to you helping you through rough spots.

At the other extreme, I think the only purely internal motivation is obsession: your whole being is engaged with a task, and other people are not just unnecessary -- they get in the way. Even on a project that other people don't know about, your beliefs about how they will receive it can get in the way. That's why I've been failing to write fiction, because I've been thinking about it backwards, more in terms of its public reception than what I enjoy writing moment by moment. And that's why George RR Martin can't finish the Game of Thrones books, because at first he was creating his own universe for fun, and now he's carrying the burden of the expectations of millions of people, who are giving him no help with the actual writing.

My point is, the whole world is more and more like this, and it happened accidentally through good intentions. You're no longer stuck doing the same job your parents did, but now that you're free, you're still burdened by social pressures: if people ask "what do you do?" you're supposed to say "I work at a nonprofit indigenous something something and build artisan furniture in my spare time," not "I work at a convenience store and write Harry Potter erotica." And you're supposed to carve out this almost impossible perfect life completely on your own. At best your parents will keep you from living on the streets and you'll get predictable advice from strangers on the internet.

I see two ways out of this. I mean, the thousand year solution is to build a complex society with a wide perspective and a high standard of living, where every task that holds society together is done voluntarily by healthy social groups. But right now I see two ways people are responding to this difficult world. Young people crave social collapse: life becomes mentally easier because you're driven by survival and (ideally) surrounded by friends, but it's physically harder. Now that I'm an old person, physically weaker but mentally stronger, my solution is to not care what people think. Give me an unconditional basic income and let me follow my unfashionable obsessions.

April 4. Continuing from last week, yet another stray thought on motivation. I was watching an interview with UFC champion Miesha Tate, and she was talking about how she got obsessed with wrestling in high school. Her school didn't have a girls wrestling team, so she would wrestle the boys and always lose. How was this motivating? Because every time she lost she learned stuff, which she applied to her next match to lose by a smaller margin. She established a rhythm -- fight, learn, adjust, fight -- with positive feedback in two places: the reward of learning and the reward of coming closer to winning.

(I do the same thing when I write about music: listen, notice stuff, put it into words, and use those words to guide my next round of listening, approaching but never reaching full understanding.)

How often does life work like this? Almost never. In social behavior, when you make a mistake, you rarely find out exactly what you did wrong, and you usually don't get another chance with that same person -- unless they're a family member, and then you're just learning to match their particular dysfunction, which will not work when you're out in the world getting one chance each with people who have completely different dysfunctions. It's a miracle that anyone ever becomes socially competent.

In school, when you take a test or turn in a project, they tell you what you did wrong, but you don't get another chance -- you're stuck with that low grade for life, and then you move on to badly learning something new (that you'll probably never use).

You do get good feedback and multiple chances when you're being trained for a job -- but only if your trainers are good, and pretty soon you reach a plateau where you're no longer learning, just going through a routine for a paycheck.

I've just spent all afternoon writing and deleting drafts, trying and failing to go somewhere interesting with this idea. All I can say is that we need to set up society so that we spend our lives enjoying getting better at skills that make life better for everyone, and this is going to take a really long time.

April 1. Another stray thought on motivation. Last week I wrote that nothing I've done in real life matches games for rewarding moment-to-moment action (but writing can be close) and someone asked me, what about the stuff I did on the land? This illustrates a principle that you can only really understand with life experience: what makes a project seem rewarding from a distance is completely different from what makes it feel rewarding as you're doing it, and it's normal to have one without the other.

Building a cabin sounds wonderful, but it's such a massively complex and alien project that I just felt overwhelmed; and how-to books, with thousands of things that have to be done in just the right difficult and expensive way, only made it worse. Growing fruit trees is something I can wrap my head around, but it's not something where you can get in the flow, and there's little connection between effort and reward: I put countless hours into trees that died, while the most successful thing I planted was a blue elder that I probably spent ten minutes on.

One thing I did up there that felt rewarding was throwing logging debris into piles. It has clear benefits, making the land more beautiful and walkable, and making habitat for critters, and every little action is clearly visible permanent progress. Cutting lower branches off trees to open up the woods and reduce fire danger was similar. In hindsight, by writing the landblog, I was carrying readers on my shoulders so they could enjoy stuff I wasn't enjoying enough myself, and if I had it to do over again, I would do a lot more stuff that's fun to do and boring to tell other people about. This is good life advice in general.

March 30. I've been kicking around some stray thoughts about motivation. Last week, going off on a tangent while answering an email, I figured out what I mean when I accuse people of puritanism, and my metaphor is diet. Your diet is your body's business, and maybe your head can help by reading about nutritional studies, but some people have dietary restrictions that are nothing about their bodies and all about their heads: I won't eat that thing that contradicts some story my head tells itself to make life feel meaningful.

In the same way, you have a motivational body, or a motivational metabolism, like an engine inside you that needs to keep going, and if it stalls you get depressed. Your engine doesn't care if your head thinks that some activity is a waste of time or something done by uncool people -- it just needs to stay in the flow of doing one fun thing after another. Obviously you should avoid anything that has a record of destroying lives, like recreational opiates. But I've found that when I'm spending time playing video games or watching sports or listening to music on cannabis, it does not reduce my overall productivity, and it might even increase it by keeping my wheels spinning when I'm not doing something "useful".

And you should never say no to content creation, no matter how worthless it seems. Over the last year I've spent a massive amount of time, maybe more than blogging, on a very personal project in a category where nothing important has ever been written. But it continues to stretch me as a writer, and the most important thing is that I'm keeping the creative fire burning.

Two quotes from Ecclesiastes: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might... In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that.

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.

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