February 2018

OK, I’m back on track with blogging, even starting this post a few days before the end of February. I hope everybody’s 2018 has been off to a great start, that you’re doing the best to filter out the distractions that prevent you from realizing your full potential. I’ve had a friend send me a handful of depressing links about crime and homelessness in the Bay Area this week, and while I think just as much if not more about the systemic drivers of these social issues within cities, I worry that his exposure to negative news is akin to catching a digital cold, and that we can all gain from practicing both physical and emotional hygiene in this especially contagious season.

I’ve just begun reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which clocks in at about 450 pages, and I’m relishing it. It basically feels like the book I didn’t end up having to write, but was aspiring to I began my journey of intellectual honesty at the start of the Trump presidency. And I think it works pretty much perfectly as prerequisite reading for my next class of students in Sustainable Urban Systems, and the antidote to the contagious pessimism of our media-saturated environment. Pinker recalls a point he made in earlier books like The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Blank Slate that if newspapers could only publish once every 50 years — heck even just once every one year — they’d have a lot better things to say, when they can elevate above our negativity and recency biases to see the incredible progress and success of science and reason to improve overall human health and well-being. Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which I just finished yesterday, provides some reservations on whether 1/7th of our world is experiencing the same progress, but these newspapers can be equally influential in helping us break out of our small circles of empathy and applying rational compassion to the biggest problems in our global society.

I try my best to keep all my projects ranked in scale of impact on well-being, and compare them to projects I see out in the world that may be more deserving of my time. Affordable housing and transit-oriented development in the Bay Area are problems that substantively affect well-being on the order of millions of people, but perhaps not as directly as the impact you would have specifically targeting the thousands who are homeless and struggling with opioid addiction in the Bay. Which should I be spending this year focused on? Or should I be focusing more on climate change and flood risk and mental health and education, in service of generations yet to come in the Bay Area? Or should I be focusing my time on this current window of opportunity we seem to have with gun control legislation, led by brave students out of Parkland, Florida? Or should we be even more honest about the problem of gun violence and look past mass shootings to the many more gun suicides and gun homicides we could be preventing through a more comprehensive set of policies and political shifts? Or should we break out of our American bubble and stop to think about the over 500 deaths in Syria this past week, or the residents of Cape Town who down to 50 liters of water per capita per day?

To my friend’s credit, it is incredibly challenging to stay measured in the wake of so many problems worth solving, some that hit emotionally close to home, others that are unfathomable. But all I know is that we each need a minimum amount of personal health to be in the best position to tackle these challenges, and that should be our first priority when we wake each morning. Otherwise, to use an uncomfortable metaphor, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot before we start the race.

Two quick last anecdotes on the topic of unfathomable depths.

On Thursday night I went to see Mount Eerie (Phil Elverum) perform at the Swedish American Hall. As I noted in my last post, his latest album A Crow Looked at Me is an eulogy to his wife who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. Listening to this album over the last few weeks, and watching Phil perform these songs (and new ones), represents one peak (or valley) of this unsettling landscape of empathy and compassion. I suggest you listen to a song like “Real Death“, or just listen to the whole album (I’ll share it with you) to really know what I mean, and maybe to get a glimpse at what he means, or is trying to mean. See the thing is, I have absolutely know idea how to feel about or relate to this music. He’s noted in interviews that the point wasn’t to make music or art, but to put down a year’s worth of haunting memories in record and performance as a way of one day being able to distance himself from them, and move on with his (and his daughter’s) life. But if that is the goal, then what are we to do with these tragic songs? How was I supposed to react to them, sitting in the audience with a hundred San Franciscans on Thursday night, as Phil went from song to song, often throwing his neck back to stare straight up into the ceiling, maybe to Geneviève, as he started a song? (At some point the veil was broken when he was going the second time through a chorus for a surprisingly funny new song about hanging out with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty at a music festival in a desert in Phoenix, but the breaking revealed more about us than him; as he sang “People get cancer and die, people get hit by buses and die,” somebody in the audience started clapping along, and he stopped and said, “That’s so fucked up.”) I think maybe it’s as simple as Phil wanting a simple truth to be known: death is real. There is meaningless suffering around the corner for all of us, embedded into the relationships and dreams we care about the most, traceable back to the Second Fundamental Law of Thermodynamics, as Pinker so eloquently explains in his new book. But in another song Phil revealed a deeper idea: that in anticipation of his own death, which he imagined to be a plane crash in the Grand Canyon, he just hoped that he would be remembered after he was gone. I think this is the beauty of the human condition (ignoring for a moment the merits of working to reduce human suffering): that as grim as our lives can be, our suffering is at least temporary, while good ideas and loving memories can last as long as society itself, if cherished. So through song, Phil has honored a memory that can transcend Geneviève’s suffering, and his own. And this is what I took from Thursday night, walking back home, having stood at the edge of an unfathomable depth; I still had no way to connect with the feeling of being in that depth, but I was able to see that it was deep in a way I had not measured before.

This was all fine and dandy to close out my thoughts on well-being and suffering for February; then I watched the first episode of Black Mirror Season Four last night. I know I’m way behind and that many of you have probably already watched the Star Trek episode (spoilers ahead, so definitely watch it before reading the rest of this post).

But after a brief look for thinkpieces online, I feel like the elephant in the room hasn’t been addressed, the idea that scares me the most out of this episode. That is: the idea of the eternal suffering of conscious AI. This may be the most important idea that Black Mirror has explored so far, because I think it’s one of the most important ethical problems we are at the precipice of in human civilization, one that I’ve only heard Sam Harris seriously focus on. All you have to do is watch this episode and imagine what it was like for the cloned characters to be trapped in the U.S.S. Callister for what is implied to be years, without a way of escaping their prison, even through suicide. (Or even worse, for poor Gillian from marketing who is out there on some planet trapped in a monster’s body.) The implication is that when the main characters exit the wormhole, the offline mod is deleted, but it looks like Robert Daly’s real-life consciousness is left to sit in some residual code floating through space at least until his real-life body dies of dehydration. But what if it’s more complicated than that, and somehow the digital version stays trapped for what feels like a conscious eternity? What if Gillian from marketing, Tommy, Walton, and unnamed others weren’t deleted with the wormhole incident, but also stuck in some alternate digital dimension, continuing to suffer forever? And what’s not to say that shortly after the “happy ending” of the show, the main characters who are conscious AI in the online server end up getting stuck in new eternal prisons by real-life abusive players like the Aaron Paul cameo?

Compared to everything I’ve discussed in this post, I actually feel like it’s more important for us to prevent even a single conscious AI from suffering like this, because then we’d have eternal damnation on our hands. (Perhaps this is one issue that religious people have the most experience with and should be the most concerned about.) There’s of course a long road before we better understand the preconditions of consciousness, and before our experiments with general machine intelligent could yield such preconditions, but if we are not careful, our computers will become the gates of Hell.

And on that most depressing of notes… back to Netflix. I’m off to run the Dish at Stanford tomorrow morning, and will probably add an update about that.

UPDATE 2/28: The Dish Race was a success! I had practiced it a week before and run it in just under 30 minutes (3.25 miles, just over 5K); for the real thing I ended up running it in 27 minutes, 8:19 split! I made a playlist with Kendrick Lamar and Grimes and War on Drugs which probably helped. By the end my knees were in a lot of pain and were the bottleneck to me running any faster, and I was worried that my knees would be in pain all week, but by the following morning they felt fine. So it seems that my physical endurance and joints have really improved this year, with the skiing and the running. I’m thinking I’ll try a 5K in San Francisco next and see how that goes.


Photo from the Stanford Dish Race FB Page.

Not much else to add for February except that it was a fantastic month for music! A selection for you to sample:

  1. Wye Oak – It Was Not Natural, second single off the new album coming in April, is expansive and sometimes explosive but still has the pristine joy of Wye Oak’s last album and Flock of Dimes. I have two tickets to see them in July, and the second ticket is not yet claimed!
  2. Trace Mountains – Cary’s Dreams, second single off album due at the end of March, is making me really excited about this artist. The long drawls are probably not for everyone, but I love this kind of Garage Band indie sound.
  3. Mount Eerie – Toothbrush/Trash, not a February 2018 release, but as I noted before, I’ve been deep into this album in preparation for the concert. This track is near the end and is like a light at the end of a really dark tunnel.
  4. S. Carey – Hideout, off Bon Iver’s drummer’s new album Hundred Acres, aptly described by Pitchfork as “pleasant”. This whole album is my year’s fix of Asgeir, Novo Amor style goodies for a nature walk.
  5. Belle & Sebastian – The Girl Doesn’t Get It, off How to Solve Our Human Problems Part 1, though I’m listening to the full trilogy which just came out as one package. With quick glimpses throughout the past few months I wasn’t too enthused, but now diving fully into it there are some really lovely gems in here. I’m not sure if B&S is still my #1 band, which it was for all of college, but they really can’t do wrong by me. This song has the fervent motion of “Play for Today” off the last album; other highlights include “Poor Boy” and “There Is An Everlasting Song”. I haven’t extracted the answer to our human problems from this project yet, but the last darling song “Best Friend” probably hints at it: “Oh, here we are just trying not to fall in love / It’s only human not to want to be alone”.
  6. Yo La Tengo – For You Too, a song off their March album There’s A Riot Going On, which sounds really promising! So far it’s got the vibe of Fade, which is exactly what I was hoping for more of.
  7. CHVRCHES – Get Out, first single off of Love is Dead, which just came out on pre-order today, is the kind of banger I adore. Simple, yes, but at this point Lauren Mayberry can say two words over and over again on a sick beat, and as long as it’s that perfectly high anime range, I’m loving it. Oh, and Matt Berninger is on this album, making good on their sharing the stage at Treasure Island a few years ago to sing “I Need My Girl”, which was about as good as it gets for me and Bobo.

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