Ran Prieur

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

-James Tiptree Jr

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July 19. Music for the weekend. I like the idea of doom/stoner metal, but it's hard to find actual songs that I like, and especially hard to find good vocals. My top song of this century remains Orchard by Windhand, but I have a new top album. From this page, 10 Extremely Underrated Doom Metal Albums, I discovered a London band called Green Lung. Their sound is basically Sabbath with some Queen lead guitar, and I really like their 2018 EP, Free the Witch.

July 18. Oddly, while human society is getting worse, my inner world is getting better. So to balance the doom, I want to share some mental health tips. One thing I've discovered is, whatever change you want to make to yourself, the key is at the micro scale.

The first thing you do at that scale, is to catch something you want to change, while it's happening. For this, meditation is helpful. I've never had an altered mental state from meditation, but it's like taking my attention to the gym. The more endurance my metacognition has, the more it notices my cognition doing dumb things.

You have to be non-judging, which is hard for some people. If you find yourself judging yourself for judging yourself for judging yourself, you still haven't got it.

It's like this one time that I was listening to battery-powered headphones. They sound fine without power, but if you flip the switch, the sound is louder and sharper. I'd been listening for a while and thought, wait, did I forget to flip the switch?

Now, what do you hope for? My first thought was, I hope I haven't just wasted minutes of my life listening to music on the crappy level. That hope was incorrect. The correct hope is, never mind what I've just been doing, I want the action of flipping the switch right now to make it better.

In hindsight, that was a breakthrough, but at the time it just seemed like a neat idea. Another time, after waiting in line at the supermarket, I remembered something I absolutely needed, way at the back of the store. While walking back, I thought, instead of thinking of this little trip as a tedious chore, I can think of it as an epic quest.

This is not the kind of thing you nail on the first try. It's something you practice and gradually get better at. Another trick I do is to pretend that my life is a TV show, and whatever I'm doing right now is in the closing credits. If you're young, you might want to imagine the opening credits. Don't do it while you're driving, but it's a good thing to do while you're washing the dishes.

Also on the subject of mental health, Matt sends this online book, Meaningness, which is mainly about exploring dichotomies, and either balancing them or finding other options.

July 16. Today's subject, doom. Historians say the fall of Rome happened so slowly that people at the time didn't know Rome was falling. But right now, everyone knows America is falling. There are cultural differences in how we think it's falling, but whatever changes we don't like, we can all imagine them being permanent. Even if changes do not accelerate, but continue at the rate of the last quarter century, historians will look back and see us right now inside the date range of a relatively fast crash.

In the last three days we've seen three darkly iconic spectacles at public events. At least they're increasingly silly. The first is all in the news. The second was the Copa America final, where thousands of fans without tickets forced their way in, which has never happened at a large American stadium. The third, at last night's Home Run Derby, was possibly the worst ever singing of the national anthem at a major event. It was so bad that sonic theorists in this reddit thread thought it was a tech error, but it turns out the singer was just really drunk.

Two more doom links. From 2015, The Really Big One describes an earthquake, with a one in ten chance of happening in the next fifty years, that will reduce the northwest coast to rubble, including my neighborhood. It doesn't even mention how many tech company headquarters are here.

And The Peculiar Phenomenon of Megacryometeors, chunks of ice big enough to smash through roofs, falling out of a clear sky. Specialists "believe that the recent increase in the frequency of these megacryometeors worldwide may be due to the effects of global warming."

July 12. Two fascinating geography links. Why Is Chile So Long? Because it covers a long, thin, isolated area that's unique in the world. At the end the author gets into how that isolation also makes it an outlier in language.

Should this be a map or 500 maps? In the late 1700s, a guy tried to make a map of Spain by asking local priests to draw a map of their region, and compiling them. Instead he got 500 wildly different maps, and died trying to reconcile them.

There are many things to take from this story -- about beginner's mind, the diversity of human experience, and the interoperability of language. But what stood out to me most was two opposing lessons about shared protocols and modularity. Tomás' experiment failed. It failed because each amateur cartographer injected their own methodology and process, resulting in incompatible maps. But in another sense, Tomás succeeded. Sure, maybe this collection of artifacts would be useless for military strategy or commerce, but on the other hand... LOOK AT THESE MAPS, THESE MAPS RULE. Imagining a world in which Tomás successfully imposed a protocol and stripped these maps of their individuality feels... tragic? Dystopian?

I'm obsessed with this story because it gets at a dynamic embedded within everything designed that we rarely think about. Once you notice it, it is present in almost every conversation, at every aperture and zoom level: modularity is inversely correlated to expressiveness.

There's more discussion in the Hacker News thread. By the way, the original piece says "18th century" which I changed to "1700s" because Let's stop counting centuries.

July 10. It's been too hot this week for heavy thinking, but today it cooled off enough that I can at least riff on the last post. A reader comments: "I believe the phenomena of schizophrenia, hearing voices, self and identity, and spiritual awakening are all elements of the same underlying psychology structure which can be manipulated from the inside." So the criminally insane, and awakened saints, are just managing the same kind of thing in the worst way and the best way.

I use the word "subconscious" instead of "unconscious" because I think whatever it is, it's conscious. But maybe that's not going far enough. Another comment: "Really, there is no subconscious. We can plumb the entirety of our mind to its very depths once we get over our own resistance." So the only difference between the "conscious" and the "unconscious" is exclusion by the ego. I would say the same thing about the "paranormal", that it differs from the "normal" only in falling outside some walls constructed by a specific way of looking.

Everyone knows the story of Galileo, who made a telescope and saw moons around Jupiter, and the Church said, according to our ideology, there cannot be moons around Jupiter. Now, in the conflict between empiricism and ideology, science is often on the other side. I mean, I still trust biologists to evaluate vaccines. But you might get some synchronicity, or apparent telepathy, or a strong hunch that cannot be explained by peripheral sensing, or a useful Tarot reading. That's empirical information. And science, reaching outside its wheelhouse, says, you have to ignore that because we can't explain the mechanism.

July 8. I've been working on a complete rewrite of my Books page, and while I'll surely be adding more, it's finished enough to post. The emphasis is now heavily on metaphysics, with smaller sections for social philosophy, fringe science, and fiction. I've also just updated the sidebar to the left, to clearly distinguish my stuff from other people's stuff.

July 5. New Spotify playlist, R.E.M. Dreamy Deep Tracks. That title is more descriptive, but these are just my favorite REM songs.

July 4. Whenever I hear about a crazy person who did a terrible crime, typically killing their family, because they heard voices telling them to do it, I always wonder: Why don't they just not do what the voices say? I mean, if I were facing a hard decision, and a voice in my head gave me advice, I'd probably follow it. But I wouldn't go against my core values. Never mind murder -- voices in my head couldn't make me litter. I'd just be annoyed at them.

Obviously something else is going on. The words "kill your family" are not where the action is. The person is being compelled on a deeper level, and the words are at most a carrier for the compulsion, and at least a residue. It could be the part of the iceberg that's above water, or the shadow, in the rational world, of a more potent sub-rational process.

Now I'm thinking, can this happen to non-crazy people, through voices not inside the head? Can a voice on the radio, or the TV, or the internet, serve as a carrier or a catalyst or a pointer for something that's happening on a deeper level than language?

If speech has persuasive force, and if the words don't hold up rationally, then the next candidate is the non-language part of the voice: the tone, the timbre, the vibration. This makes sense to me. My most transformative experience was not from drugs, but from a song, and not from the lyrics or melody, but the sound.

There still has to be something deeper, because what is it that makes a vibration compelling for one person, and repellent for another? I think this is an aspect of human identity, especially collective identity, that remains undiscovered. And my practical advice, in these crazy times, is not to use the word "irrational", but instead sub-rational. Because there's something going on in there, even if you don't know what it is.

July 1. Back to philosophy, I've written about the consciousness of animals and plants. But if we take psychism seriously, it opens all kinds of interesting doors. And if we take pagan metaphysics seriously, we have to wonder about the consciousness of gods. What is it like to be a god?

I can see three levels of answers. One is that gods exist purely as a behavior of human consciousness, as already understood by psychologists. So what it's like to be a god is simply what it's like to be a human believing in that god; and through known channels of communication, humans can decide what the gods are like and what they want.

If we go deeper, gods can exist in the human collective subconscious. If humans disappeared, they'd disappear too, but they can coordinate our behavior in ways that physicalism doesn't recognize, and without us being consciously aware of it. This answer seems most likely to me, and it could also apply to demonic possession.

Or they could exist on some level deeper than humans. We're an opportunity to them, but they don't need us. This is how it usually is in fiction, and you can see examples in the TV Tropes page for the Old Gods.

Notice that on all three levels, the gods are mutable. We could change our minds about them, or they could adapt to changing culture, or they could put on different masks. I tend to agree with Ezra Pound, who wrote, "The Gods have not returned. They have never left us."

June 28. Quick comment on politics. I don't know how much dumber it can get, before it gets less dumb. Of all the explanations I've seen, one of the more plausible is this comment: "We collectively died as a species in 2012 and all of this is just the dying hallucinations of the total human gestalt."

Which leads to today's subject, drugs. I have a strange brain. I've done as much as 7g of mushrooms with no visuals, and now I can report basically the same experience from three widely different substances: alcohol, LSD, and ritalin.

LSD is my favorite drug that I've tried, but my supply is down to its last scraps, and has lost some potency. In Pullman I took a tab and a half, and after three and a half hours, I was thinking, this is barely better than alcohol -- and I'm not a fan of alcohol. It just makes me feel "drugged", not in a pleasant or unpleasant way, just neutrally out-of-it.

Recently I had a chance to sample some slow-release ritalin. Some people with ADHD report that it gives them the motivation and focus they always lacked, and I was hoping it would help me dive into some project I'd been putting off, or allow me to get in the flow of something I'd normally get tired of. No such luck. It felt exactly like a pint of strong beer plus three cups of coffee: out of it, and jittery. It was actually harder to focus.

I'm lucky that the drug that fits me best is both cheap and legal: old fashioned cannabis. It makes me more motivated, more creative, and more present, as long as I don't do it too often. And when my LSD trip failed to launch, I vaped a mere 20th of a gram of weed, and bam, I was in fairyland.

My main insight from psychedelics is something like "nature is God". More precisely, the fundamental reality is wild and joyful and fully conscious and incomprehensibly dense, and "nature" is what we call the last thread of our connection to that, while we putter around with crude and clunky human-made things. Here's a photo I took, of a movie theater behind a river course, that illustrates the difference between real and unreal.

June 25. Some helpful and good news links, starting with three from Ask Reddit. What's something your therapist said that was life changing?

What small change massively improved your quality of life?

People who grew up poor, what's a skill you developed that rich people don't have? The top answer is "Coming up with meals with whatever is leftover in the pantry and fridge." I'd love to see a cooking show with that premise. Instead of a massive pantry, high end equipment, and limited time, you have meager supplies, basic equipment, and plenty of time. Because that's going to actually happen to more and more of us.

Something I've directly experienced: Focusing on greenery during city walks has mental health benefits

This impossibly thin fabric could cool you down by 16-plus degrees. I think information technology is well into diminishing returns, but there's still a lot of room for miracles in materials tech.

Finally, We now have even more evidence against the "ecocide" theory of Easter Island. I pushed this theory myself twenty years ago, because it's so pretty: Easter Islanders were so obsessed with giant statues, that they cut down all their trees so they could roll the statues around, and their ecology collapsed. Evidence increasingly suggests that the statues were moved by standing them upright and rocking them, and that there was no ecological decline until colonization.

June 21. Two related articles. This one is pretty basic: Are animals conscious? This one, posted earlier this week to the subreddit, is much more interesting: Do plants have minds? It's mainly about a 19th century scientist named Gustav Fechner, who tried to reconcile quantitative observation with his uncommon sensitivity to the non-human world. In 1843...

He suddenly caught "a beautiful glimpse beyond the boundary of human experience. Every flower shone towards me with a peculiar clarity, as if it were throwing its inner light outwards." The whole garden was transfigured. And he thought to himself: "one must only open one's eyes afresh to see nature, once stale, alive again."

Yeah, that's what I see on LSD, and only on LSD. Here's a photo I took last week south of Pullman. It doesn't look like much, just some trees around a meadow, but I had the sense that if you sped up time fast enough, those would be great beasts drinking from a pond.

June 18. Continuing from a week ago: If you were an indigenous animist, why would you convert to Christianity? I'm completely speculating here, but I can think of four reasons, and they could all work in parallel. First, you seek favor with the conquering people. It's like that bit from The Simpsons: "I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords."

Second, you seek favor with the God of the conquering people. If you already believe that everything we have comes from the gods, it's not a stretch to switch to a god who gives his people so much stuff.

Third, Christianity tells a good story. Jerah comments, "People like having a framework and a reason for suffering." The framework of paganism is complicated and morally ambiguous. In comparison, I imagine Christianity is like Star Wars: a simple epic tale of good and evil, sacrifice and redemption.

Fourth, it offers a good deal. Indigenous spirituality is not like Animal Crossing. There are ghosts and witches and demons, and even the gods who are on your side make a lot of demands. Christianity makes few demands, especially Protestantism. All you have to do is believe certain things, and you're in.

So, going back to the original question: How did physicalism defeat psychism? It didn't. Psychism defeated psychism. The cacophony of animist polytheism was out-competed by an optimized variety of mind-based metaphysics, in which the mind who created everything is monolithic and remote, but is also the same person as a human who preached compassion.

This formula, in early Medieval Europe, led to better administration, higher literacy, and eventually a wide zone of cultural and philosophical agreement. This zone of agreement made modern science possible. Now I'm tempted to say that science factored out God -- but it didn't. My dad was a serious scientist and also a serious Catholic. Atheists have always been a minority, and you can even see polytheism creeping back in, when Christians say that God will defeat Allah.

Related: I haven't read this book yet but it looks promising, We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour.

June 14. Stray links, ordered from worst to best, starting with a Reddit thread, What's the worst country to vacation to right now?

A good rant about technology making things worse, An appliance used to be a machine. Now it's a bureaucracy

Water is bursting from another abandoned West Texas oil well, and no one knows why, but it's probably from all the fracking wastewater pumped into the ground.

An interesting analysis of the uncanny valley, and why exactly some aberrations look creepy and some don't.

Wild elephants may have names that other elephants use to call them

Wild horses return to Kazakhstan steppes after absence of two centuries

And great news for the far future, Fungus breaks down ocean plastic

June 11. Continuing on philosophy, I'm going to start using the words "physicalism" and "psychism" instead of "materialism" and "idealism", because the latter words have other meanings that make them confusing.

Physicalists talk about "the hard problem of consciousness", but for psychism, it's not a problem at all. The hard problem for psychism is this: Why has physicalism had so much practical success? Thousands of cultures, all over the world, once believed that humans are minor players in a conscious universe full of powerful beings. Now all of them have been defeated by one culture that believes in a mindless clockwork universe.

I have an inkling of an answer, and I think it's related to another puzzling question:

Why do Christian missionaries have any success at all? I grew up in a Christian culture, going to Catholic church and Sunday school, and I found that belief system completely uncompelling. The idea that I do find compelling is a universe saturated with perspective and personhood. Why would anyone, who grew up thinking that way, convert to Christianity?

June 7. I'm in Pullman for the next twelve days. June is the most beautiful time to be here, and I'm excited about walking up the river under the spell of certain substances. I finally bought a portable vaporizer, the Xlux Roffu, and it's better than my old Silver Surfer in almost every way. The SSV has a large chamber and a raw blast of hot air. The Roffu has a much smaller chamber, perfect for small doses, and the heat goes through it evenly. It's like the difference between a firehose and a shower. With the SSV, the vapor comes out so hot that I put water in my mouth to serve as a bubbler. The Roffu has a compact cooling apparatus, so I don't have to bubble it, and I can actually taste the different strains. It also feels like a smoother high. The SSV is still better in two ways. Because of the simple design, it's easy to clean, and very robust.

Four links from PsyPost. Individuals with ADHD may be better at foraging, hinting at an adaptive function

Whole-body hyperthermia shows promising antidepressant effects through anti-inflammatory pathways

Playing video games linked to enhanced wayfinding abilities. I've noticed, after playing Fallout, I'm more interested in what buildings are where, and which way north is, when I'm walking around the city.

And the technology of the future, Six surprising things about placebos everyone should know

June 4. Continuing on indigenous metaphysics, I've been reminded of this important anthropology article that I keep in the readings section of this site, Preconquest Consciousness by E. Richard Sorenson. From the conclusion:

As fascinating as we may find the impact of conquering cultures on preconquest groups, it pales before the challenge to epistemology posed by the existence of a system of cognition not based on symbolic logic. We of Western training may find it virtually impossible to see how truth can be demonstrated without recourse to symbols that are logically controlled. When I first came face-to-face with these experientially-based modes of cognition wherein logic was irrelevant, they slid right past me. I did not even see them. Even when I did begin to catch on, I tended to doubt such perceptions once I was again within the confines of Western culture. It took years of repeated, even dramatic exposure before these initially fragmentary mental graspings were able to survive re-immersion in Western culture. Experiences repeated, however, eventually make their mark and I began to question whether symbolic logic was actually the only means to get at truth. Now I rather think that alternative routes to truth may exist within the immediacy of a type of experiential awareness that perhaps moves in extra-sentient directions not yet brought into the realm of our modern sense-of-truth. My slowness in this matter leads me to believe it may take modern humankind some time to identify and make use of these perhaps more rarefied mental capabilities.

Related, posted to the subreddit, Quatism is an ambitious page trying to use science to get beyond science. More precisely, it's using concepts developed by science to try to explain phenomena normally excluded by science. The strategy I prefer is to simply abandon the core assumption on which science is based: an "out there" objective physical universe that is internally consistent and not influenced by observation. Many worlds? How about no worlds? We're all just making up our stream of experience on the fly, and we don't have to agree on what's "real" unless we're trying to share the convenient illusion of a third person reality.

The mystery that remains is the definition of the self, because the "me" that's creating reality is not the same as the "me" that feels banged about by a confusing external world. Also, this whole time I'm trying to use language for something that is described, by people who glimpse it, as being beyond language.

Related, Helen Keller on Her Life Before Self-Consciousness. This was posted last week to Hacker News, with a long comment thread about the effect of language on consciousness, and the possibility of some further human awakening. Keller writes:

I am inclined to believe those philosophers who declare that we know nothing but our own feelings and ideas. With a little ingenious reasoning one may see in the material world simply a mirror, an image of permanent mental sensations. In either sphere self-knowledge is the condition and the limit of our consciousness. That is why, perhaps, many people know so little about what is beyond their short range of experience. They look within themselves -- and find nothing! Therefore they conclude that there is nothing outside themselves, either.

May 31. I had some nice replies to the last post, and I have a lot more to say about that subject, but it's difficult and I don't want to push it. So today's subject is why I love making playlists. Apparently a curator is a fashionable thing to be right now. What I try to do with music is what you'd do in a museum: from a basement full of junk, pick out the very best stuff, and try to line it up right.

The first step can easily become compulsive: given a category or date range, try to think of every song I ever liked, browse compilations for ideas, and download the mp3s from Soulseek. Luckily Spotify is so convenient, and so profitable, that old-fashioned file-sharing is not worth shutting down.

If I have a lot of songs, I break it up into sub-categories, and that's another fun puzzle. The next step is listening, and I always look up the release dates, and do the first listen chronologically. I want to hear how sounds change across time, and sometimes that order works for the final list. But it's more important to have good transitions, and in a category with a lot of different sounds, it's another fun puzzle, to figure out the right order.

The whole time I'm also deleting songs for not being good enough. Quality is an idea so elusive that there's a famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where a guy gets so obsessed with defining quality that he goes mad and independently derives Taoism. But it's not complicated. Quality is a matter of fit, and how "good" a song is, is how well it fits my ears.

It took me a long time to learn to trust my ears, over social factors like how important a song is, or whether its tone or lyrics make me cool or uncool. It's one thing to listen, and another thing to separate out the judgment of your ears, from other kinds of judgment. That's why my favorite hit of the 70s is Afternoon Delight. It's why aliens don't kill us.

Anyway, last week I did some heavy listening to split my 90s playlist in two, mainly to find a place for Pulp's Common People. Now the sadder songs are in vol 1: Woe and the more energetic songs are in vol 2: What's Up?

May 28. The main thing I'm thinking about lately is non-materialist philosophy, so I want to go back to last week's link, What's the single most mysterious thing that has ever happened to you that you still can't explain?

Some of the reports involve what I call acute intuition: a sudden strong feeling that you should do something, or not do something, contrary to your plans or routine. Like getting the feeling you should pull the car over, and then something dangerous happens. The conventional explanation is what I call peripheral sensing. Your eyes or ears must have picked up something subtle that your conscious mind missed, but your subconscious mind noticed and warned you.

I understand why people say this, because they want to get the benefits of intuition, without accepting anything weird. But I think it's a mistake on two levels. First, on a practical level, you have to exclude any intuition that doesn't fit that theory. I've been burned by this myself, ignoring accurate feelings because there's no way the information could get there through causal objective channels.

Second, on a theoretical level, it doesn't add up. If your subconscious mind is that good at scanning your sensory inputs, calculating future events, and suggesting actions, why is your conscious mind even necessary? And why are there so few false positives? Say, your subconscious mind noticed some deer in the far distance and gave you a strange feeling to stop the car, but then the deer went a different way and you stopped for nothing. This should happen all the time, and it doesn't.

Also, in my experience, and in the many reports I've read, there is no empirical difference between acute intuitions that can or cannot be explained by peripheral sensing. These two supposedly separate categories feel the same and work the same.

This suggests that the subconscious source of acute intuition is not scanning physical senses and making calculations, like our conscious mind, but doing something we don't understand. Except we sort of do. It's not a stretch in modern sci-fi, for a character to look down alternate timelines for the flash of the soul's passing, and steer away.

This reminds me of the Incas, who had wheeled toys but lacked the infrastructure to scale the wheel up for practical use. Or the steam engine, which was understood in ancient times but not fully developed until a particular set of circumstances made a place for it. In this case, I think the context we're waiting for is not technological but cognitive.

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. John Tobey's archive takes a snapshot every few days, but sooner or later it will succumb to software updates. If anyone is interested in taking it on, email me and I'll send you the code. Also, the Wayback Machine takes a snapshot a few times a month.

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 / December
2022: February / April / July / September / November
2023: January / March / June / August / November
2024: January / March / May