Journal

After a weekend back home in Los Angeles celebrating Chinese New Year, skiing, and spending time with my mom, on my phone at LAX, I found myself drowned (yet again) in the torrent of history with news of the immigration ban, protests at airports, apparent protests by mobility services of protests at airports, and on and on. Just over a week into the Trump presidency, I found myself scrambling (yet again) to achieve personal moral clarity in a sea of liberal and conservative righteousness, and tonight, a day later, mulling over these topics with two close friends over dinner and tea, I reaffirmed (yet again) the importance of my “intellectual honesty” project as the most effective path forward (at least more impactful than protesting at an airport). And essentially I am holding myself (yet again) to the goal of making this vague project concept explicit as soon as possible, for me and for everyone I interact with.

So despite being in the middle of a busy workweek, I will do my best to summarize what I mean by an “intellectual honesty” project, and hopefully get constructive feedback to help refine these ideas into a future formal work.

We live in human societies that have reached a level of complexity, relative to the dawn of humanity, such that we require increasingly sophisticated tools to support and sustain our collective well-being. Those tools range from technological systems (like energy and mobility) to knowledge systems (like language and science) to economic and political systems (like capitalism and governance). Of the last category, governance, arguably the most important tool we’ve invented is policy, aka rules of law, which theoretically are institutionalizations of good ideas. But given that there is always some amount of subjectivity in how we evaluate what a “good idea” is (i.e. we don’t agree on our value systems, our value systems may change over time), then we have a supplementary tool called politics which allows us to decide who creates policy. In our representative democracy, our political disagreements boil down to differences in those value systems.

I believe our value systems, aka our systems of evaluating right and wrong, have two distinct components. One is our fundamental subjective goals, aka the values themselves. The other is our methodology of interpreting objective information, aka analyzing our reality in relation to those values. Both components feature a variety of possible outcomes. For example, we can have different values across various spectra, like selfishness vs. selflessness, equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. But we can also employ very different means of understanding our reality, from righteous dogma to painstaking empiricism and reason.

Given the framework described above, I would evaluate our current political climate in the following way. It is clear that the “left” and “right” have different centers of gravity on the spectra mentioned above, but it is less clear that both the “left” and “right” have similar vulnerability and susceptibility to dogmatic and biased thinking over reason. Both Democrats and Republicans are equally capable of distorting facts, intentionally and unintentionally. One key example of flawed reasoning is confirmation bias, aka tribalism, which we inherited from our early humanity and contributes to the increasing polarization and distortion of our modern politics.

I find myself in a purgatory of sorts, in which my greatest concern is for the degradation of empirical reasoning, which I believe is the best method humans have to navigate reality. To this end, I am critical of righteousness and poor heuristics on both sides of the political spectrum, and would like to reel the majority of people back to a more nuanced and critical employment of reason which should tend to lead to a convergence on centrist and moderate policies. This is the heart of my conception of “intellectual honesty” and is fundamental apolitical. But at the same time, my personal value system, though not fully realized, is based on a subjective goal of “maximizing universal well-being”, which is ideologically left of center. As a result, my essential worldview is liberal, but my individual policy views may be liberal or conservative on a case-by-case basis, and my typical reaction to an immediate political issue is, more often than not: “Need more information”. In other words, if you and I both identify as liberals, we may be comrades in the overall war but fighting very different battles on the ground.

I’ve love to hear your thoughts and criticisms of this first passage. Later this week: a breakdown of my personal value system, conceptualized as a journey through a dungeon of chambers and keys.

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Here’s the music I’ve been listening to on repeat in the first month of 2017:

  • Nicolas Jaar – History Lesson
  • Run the Jewels – Call Ticketron
  • Typhoon – Common Sentiments
  • Typhoon – Post Script
  • The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
  • The Flaming Lips – How??
  • The Flaming Lips – Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)
  • The Flaming Lips – Nigdy Nie (Never No)
  • The Flaming Lips – The Castle
  • The xx – Say Something Loving
  • The xx – Replica
  • The xx – On Hold
  • The xx – I Dare You
  • Foxygen – On Lankershim
  • Real Estate – Darling

Nicolas Jaar and Run the Jewels were rollovers from December 2016. “History Lesson” is an incredible production, mixing an oldies croon with surprising and irregularly paced ‘whoop’ sounds that never stop being interesting. I haven’t gotten very deeply into RTJ3 yet but the early standout was “Call Ticketron” that just exudes braggadocio and fun and features an amazing verse from Killer Mike near the end (Verse 5 on Genius).

One of my favorite songs from the summer of 2011 was Typhoon’s “CPR / Claws Pt. 2”, and I got to see Kevin Morton do a solo set at the Swedish American Hall with Dylan the first week of the year. Kevin had incredible performance skills and seemed to be lost in his own music, often finishing a song and then setting his fingers for a new chord as if ready to start the next song on his mind, before realizing he was on stage and nodding to the crowd for applause. He played a bunch of newer songs that I hadn’t really followed but ended up listening to throughout the month, particularly “Common Sentiments” and “Post Script”, and as I hoped, finished off his set with “CPR / Claws Pt. 2”.

I’ve already written about the two big albums that came out this month, Oczy Mlody and I See You. The xx has definitely grown on me, especially the four songs I listed above. “Replica” is without a doubt my favorite song they’ve ever done (beating out “VCR”); in fact, like “On Hold” it owes a lot of its feeling to Jamie xx who played with a similar oriental and steel drum sounds in In Colour. The Flaming Lips hasn’t lost its wonder for me, and next month I’ll probably just continue on listening to the other half of the album (particularly “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches to Kill”).

I’m seeing Foxygen live in April, and was excited to hear their album Hang; I didn’t end up liking most of it (more in the vein of Queen, David Bowie, Billy Joel, etc.), but “On Lankershim” shows off a really elegant Americana verse, chorus, and bridge without straying into the incomprehensible. And finally, Real Estate, which released one of my favorite albums of 2014, Atlas, announced a new album and released a single, “Darling”, which has a beautifully odd time signature play that is best described as “tickly”. I’m looking forward to the full album in March.

What other music stood out this month? I’d love to hear!

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Alternative fact of the day: what if the sluggish, irritating, and impersonal experience of bureaucracy (from your local DMV to the IRS) is actually a centuries-long conspiracy by Republicans to undermine the popularity of big government? What if conservatives bred sleeper agents, like the Bene Gesserit of Dune, to populate all the ticket counters and administrative cubicles of America and inflict slow, heartless suffering on their fellow citizens for a hundred years, up to the point that we can hardly imagine government giving us anything but chest pain? What if, now, we’ll never truly recover what our government could have been?

In other news, the Oscar nominations came out, and here are my first thoughts on the major categories:

  • Best Picture: Mostly a good list though I am really disappointed that The Handmaiden isn’t here or anywhere else. Especially glad Arrival and Hell or High Water have the nods. This one will likely be the only place where Moonlight can upset La La Land, which I hope it does.
  • Best Actress: I haven’t seen Elle, but of the others I think Emma Stone has got to win it for simply flooring me in every scene with her presence. Natalie Portman didn’t have nearly as difficult of a role (but was very good in it), and Ruth Negga was charming but underutilized. Amy Adams seems to be missing but I think her role was relatively undemanding as well. I actually would have loved to see Hailee Steinfeld get a nod for Edge of Seventeen.
  • Best Actor: Given Ryan Gosling was the weak link of La La Land, I really don’t think he should win this. Denzel Washington was great in Fences, but this hands down needs to go to Casey Affleck for the most heartbreaking performance of 2016. I would have liked to see Tom Hanks replace Andrew Garfield on this list.
  • Best Director: I think Damien Chazelle will win this one as the visionary of the year. Park Chan Wook deserves to replace Mel Gibson here.
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role: All of the nominees had excellent performances, with Michelle Williams pulling off the most in the shortest amount of screen time, but I think Viola Davis was the absolute stunner in Fences.
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role: I actually think Mahershala Ali was sub-par compared to so many other great supporting actors in Moonlight, especially the final two actors, Andre Holland and Trevante Rhodes. Aaron Taylor-Johnson deserves the spotlight over Michael Shannon from Nocturnal Animals, and this would have been a great category to give Everybody Wants Some!! a nod for excellent acting, particularly Glen Powell. But of this list, I think Jeff Bridges should win it for Hell or High Water.
  • Best Foreign Film: Have only seen A Man Called Ove, but basically just frustrated that The Handmaiden was snubbed. I am looking forward to seeing Toni Erdmann and The Salesman.
  • Best Animated Feature Film: For me it’s got to be Zootopia. Surprised that Finding Dory is not on the list, as well as anime Your Name.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: For pure power, this one should go to Moonlight.
  • Best Original Screenplay: Almost certainly will go to La La Land, but I think Hell or High Water deserves it as well for some excellent dialogue.
  • Best Original Song: I do love Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, and would love to see him win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, but I think it’s likely the Oscar will go to La La Land for “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”. I’m also disappointed that “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street isn’t on here.
  • Best Original Score: La La Land will win (of course), but I actually was really impressed by the score from Jackie.
  • Best Cinematography: Jackie was snubbed here, along with The Handmaiden. I haven’t seen Silence, but otherwise I think Moonlight’s cinematography was far superior to La La Land.
  • Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book should probably win this one. As I’ve said before, I really didn’t enjoy the CGI characters in Rogue One. Kubo and the Two Strings has a well-deserved second nomination here.

Also, I just finished Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you love astrophysics, virtual reality (a la Ready Player One), alternative history (the only acceptable type of alternative fact), and political commentary at a universal scale, go read this. Extra points for being a fresh Chinese voice in the annals of sci-fi greats. Now I’m reading Anthony Doerr’s About Grace in time for his talk at Stanford in two weeks. So far it’s far inferior to All The Light We Cannot See, almost painstakingly so.

This Thursday night I’m heading home for a day at ESRI Learning Center followed by the first Chinese New Year back home in a long time. Hit me up if you’re in town over the weekend and want to catch up.

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I just listened to Sam Harris’s latest podcast, “What is True?”, which is two hours of Harris and psychologist Jordan B. Peterson debating the definition of “truth”, which was timely for me given the topic of my last post. It was unbelievable, no pun intended. TL;DR, Peterson believes that scientific truth is nested inside of moral truth, and Harris vice versa. What that means, in practice, is that Peterson doesn’t believe anything is “true” unless it leads to the survival of the human species. That literally means that something like “1+1=2”, or “George Washington was the 1st president of the United States”, or “Trump’s Inauguration had the greatest attendance of any Inauguration in U.S. history”, for that matter, can only be deemed “sufficiently true” for the rest of time, potentially, as long as the human species continues to survive. I really didn’t think anyone would dumbfound me more than Kellyanne Conway today, but this purported scientist has surely done it.

Harris and Peterson ultimately called it a break and asked the listeners to perform a post mortem analysis of what went wrong; if I can distill the misunderstanding down to its essence, I hope that it’s just an issue of semantics. Basically Harris defines truth to be “accurate vs. inaccurate”, as I suspect most people do; Peterson wants to imbue truth with the additional qualities of “good vs. bad for human survival” for an apparently higher-level ethical reason, as if forcing our language into this construct will condition us into the very ethical framework that will allow us to continue surviving in the first place (think Arrival’s idea of the power of language to rewire us). This is astounding, given that Peterson is apparently famous for rejecting the Canadian Human Rights authority organization which is attempting to legalize the rights of Canadians to use a variety of new gender pronouns on the basis of social justice concerns of their moral rights to identity, but his own construct of truth is just as superfluously moral as he claims “(f)aer/em/per/ver/xem/hir” to be. (Digression to be challenged/elaborated upon at another time, but I am on Peterson’s (and Harris’s) side on the specific subject of gender inclusivity, which I cannot believe to be “true” in a Petersonian (nor Harrisian) sense.) But anyway, granted that Peterson is really just contriving this intolerably meta- definition of truth for moral goals (and doing a bad job at his own game, given he still has no problem using the word “true” in a normal colloquial way throughout the 2 hours), then I think the angle Harris should have focused on was whether this “heuristic” or “hypothesis” of the moral way to think about truth was in fact better (i.e. more helpful for the survival of the human species) than a purely realist version of truth. I think Harris automatically wins that argument, given how agonizing that conversation was. I’m curious to hear the thoughts of anyone else who survived this debate.

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I’m writing at my favorite desk(s) on the 5th floor of the San Francisco Public Library Main branch on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. To my left, outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, I can see the Pioneer Monument, where 24 hours ago over a hundred thousand people were gathered for the San Francisco Women’s March. I walked through the crowd briefly with Boanne to witness a beautiful assembly of female pride, from little girls holding signs from their strollers to millennials raising timely cultural references (“Herstory has its eyes on you”), to the elderly passing on their dignity and spirit to the next generation, to a massive walking paper mache I first thought was Obama but was actually Susan B. Anthony. Unfortunately the rain weeded out the unfaithful, myself included; nonetheless the message of solidarity rang loud and clear. Particularly I was glad to see the broad plazas of the City Beautiful movement being utilized all around America for their only essential purposes: as platforms for peaceful demonstration of civic values. It’s the full realization of the simple idea I worked on in my Market Street projects for two years — that when we see and interact with each other in public space, we acknowledge each other’s existence, and create shared experiences and values far greater than ourselves. We should strive to reenact a little piece of the Women’s March on every street corner, every bus and train, every public bench in our disconnected cities and towns, every single day of the year, which each and every passerby.

On a related note, if you are feeling civic pride and are looking for more kindling, I highly recommend Congressman John Lewis’s graphic novel trilogy MARCH (I’m only through Book One) and the film Hidden Figures which boasts one of the most satisfying scenes of social justice from 2016. And on a slight segue, for some provocative food for thought on just how deeply rooted and devised this demagoguery of an administration is, listen to two podcast episodes: Reply All’s “Man of the People” and Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything’s “The Twentieth Day of January”. Both are excellent and timely pieces of journalism and criticism.

Of a hundred events out of DC in the last few weeks that I simply don’t have time to react to lest I quit all of my jobs and become a full-time political activist (and until then, this meager blog will have to suffice), I just want to highlight Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts” on a Meet the Press interview. It’s a small matter regarding the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day, but as one of the first press communications out of the Trump White House I think it’s a perfect crystallization of doublespeakwrit-nonfictional, a beginning of an end. I have a flow chart I’ve been developing for my moral philosophy project, and “belief in one set of facts” is literally my first test of intellectual honesty, even before religious, political, and moral views. In other words, if we can’t protect Truth, consider every other battle already lost — and that’s a loss for both sides.

And by that I mean something very serious. The real war is not Right vs. Left; it’s Right vs. Wrong (the details to which no single political ideology is yet fully privy). I personally don’t feel comfortable with either liberal or conservative voices on the national scale nor in my own Facebook feed. Yes, the Trump supporters are afflicted by delusions all the way from the top, but some progressives are posting righteous statements in the name of social justice that are straight-up racist. If you find yourself ever deleting something you’ve written because you realized it was inappropriate in hindsight, you are experiencing a perfect example of the danger of dogma from both sides of the political spectrum. The only “safe spaces” we have are empiricism and reason, and we need more thought leaders in every bubble of discourse, especially those on the left, to own up to their misjudgments and malpractices in intellectual honesty. It’s certainly not the “easier path forward”, but I believe it’s the only path forward at all for fallible minds in uncertain times.

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Two excellent albums came out today: The xx’s strong third album I See You and The Flaming Lips’ stunning Oczy Mlody.

The latter in particular is a serious early contender for my top 10 albums of the year. While I haven’t followed them closely since Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, this new album feels a lot like a spiritual successor with a healthy new dose of psychedelics. It occurred to me that the band’s combination of reverberation, tuned-down bass rhythm, angelic vocals by Wayne Coyne, and overall magical subject matter is a deep musical landscape in my memory, and listening to Oczy Mlody is like being transported back to a visceral place, and getting to explore more lands and characters. Coincidentally, I had the same experience last night watching the new Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild trailer (Legend of Zelda is my favorite game universe from childhood), and this album’s visual style is not too dissimilar from classic 2D video games. Standout songs include “How??”, “Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)“, “Nigdy Nie (Never No)“, and “The Castle“, though the whole album sounds stellar. My rating: 4.5/5

I’ve enjoyed the past two xx albums (and enjoyed them live at Treasure Island) for their minimalist approach, and absolutely loved Jamie xx in his breakthrough house record, and so was very curious to see how the band would strike their balance in this third record. First I’ll note that if you really love their previous sound, you might not enjoy this as much. There’s nothing brooding here; everything is shiny and polished and sometimes actually edgy. But I personally think it’s a strong direction for the band, especially now that Jamie xx emerges as a real voice (albeit through British DJ samples). Romy and Oliver are more confident and vibrant than ever in their singing, and some of the orchestrations here are truly riveting. Overall it feels like the xx has literally doubled in substance and sound, and though it’s clearly progress I’m not sure of the dimension yet. It’s not as immediately stunning of an evolution as CHVRCHES’ sophomore album, but I suspect it will grow on me in the coming weeks. Start with “On Hold” which is the essence of their new style, and then try “Replica“, “Say Something Loving“, and “I Dare You“. My rating: 4/5

Lots of productivity this week getting my Stanford classes off to the right start. I have lots of thoughts on sustainability, politics, and philosophy, but with a good friend in town for the night from halfway across the world, and having not seen my girlfriend for two weeks, my writing will simply have to wait.

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Tonight I was deeply moved by Obama’s farewell address, particularly this passage:

For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

This trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.

Isn’t that part of what makes politics so dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations? How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating. Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, doubled our renewable energy, and led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet. But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.

Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.

It’s that spirit, born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse – the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.

It’s that spirit – a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, and build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but on principles – the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.

It was heartening to hear the President speak directly about ideas that have haunted me since the Election: the “sorting” of our nation (as described by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort); the danger of intellectual dishonesty in our politics and in ourselves, as has become my new crusade; the tragedy of future climate change we are locking in today (illuminated beautifully by the latest Ezra Klein interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction); and, ironically, the importance of “faith in reason”.

Unfortunately this incredible passage still includes “freedoms of religion” which will always be in conflict with “faith in reason”, but who am I to criticize political correctness in a President who I will dearly miss, given the illiberalism we are soon to face?

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