Journal

The grind of twelve-or-so busy days has finally come down to a lull, and my normal downtime weekend involves cooking marginally-more-interesting breakfasts (egg AND cheese English muffin sandwiches!) while catching up on podcasts (nowadays going straight for Reply All or Radiolab if there are episodes, KQED’s California Report, NPR Politics then The Weeds in that order, Waking Up With Sam Harris, Filmspotting if I have recently watched the film being reviewed, and The Ezra Klein Show), walking down the street to the SF Public Library for free WiFi to catch up on my unread email newsletters (mostly Vox Sentences, Slate Star Codex, and a hodgepodge of urban newsletters like City Observatory, Strong Towns, SPUR, and Sidewalk Labs — I’m always looking for more and better so please share!) and my personal bookkeeping (just barely breaking even since the start of this year which is quite promising as it’s been entirely predicated on 35 hours of work per week, not counting personal projects; some interesting indicators I keep tabs on include: my personal wealth currently increasing $36.50 per day; my income spent on housing and H+T at a surprisingly unsurprising 46.23% and 51.11%; my average sleep at 7 hours per day; and my average consumption of beef, pork, chicken, and seafood meals down to 1.22, 1.61, 3.56, and 1.83 per week, with the remaining 12.78 being vegetarian), pushing onwards through my goal of 40 books this year (currently on my 14th), and spinning gleefully convoluted sentences like this one for my blog.

Last weekend I returned to Squaw Valley with a mix of Arcadia and Stanford friends and experienced the best skiing of my life with my very well-matched ski-buddy Paul Chen. It was also my first chance to try out my first pair of personally-owned skis, little 79cm skiboards that I have christened the Boboskis. My skis, boots, and snow gear fit entirely in a blue IKEA bag, which I was able to bring on the Caltrain to Stanford last Friday morning (to meet, coincidentally, with some Swedish acquaintances from the IKEA+Skanska venture Boklok), and the Boboskis totally delivered on the mountain in terms of maneuverability, although I lost them in deep snow a few times before optimizing the bindings, and I will definitely need to tune them up if I want to get anywhere near the speed of a normal skier. Most satisfyingly, I was finally able to break through the threshold of confidence and stamina to get down the steeper black diamond moguls at Squaw like The Shot, High Voltage, and Trail 90 (we didn’t have time for K-22), and even got some praise from people on the Silverado chairlift who probably rarely see idiots on short skis trying Squaw Backside on super fresh powder. Besides the incredible snow, Tahoe was once again a delightful getaway full of great cooking, great games, great antics, and great people.

My work weeks have gotten quite intense, with Stanford pushing forward with exciting new program and project opportunities while drowning me in bureaucratic cost disease, Nueva’s Advanced Architecture studio aka 131 East sprinting to its first competition submission for the Young Architects Competition Castle Resort project (work I’m very proud of), Stockton development work progressing well with the help of some excellent students, and my newest venture with Rob Best, a nonprofit company called City Systems (more on that in its own time). It’s about the time of year where I have to start planning ahead to summer, and I’ll be looking for an optimum size team of stellar students from Nueva and Stanford to work on exciting projects that I otherwise don’t have time to do during the academic year, as well as curriculum development for new Stanford courses that I’m excited about, like Methods in Urban Systems, and hopefully, Ethics in Urban Systems. All these weird individual pieces of my sporadic professional career, from design and engineering methods to urban systems to evidence-based planning to intellectual honesty, are starting to crystallize into a coherent narrative.

In terms of music, there hasn’t been much new recently, so I’ve just been listening to Flock of Dimes’ If You See Me, Say Yes and Jens Lekmans’ Life Will See You Now on repeat, discovering new layers and new favorite moments in every listen. On Wednesday night I went to see Jens Lekman at the Independent. I had impulsively purchased two tickets for the shower a few weeks back, assuming that at least one of my friends on my FB Music group would be interested in coming with me after my showering of praise for the album. Apparently, I need to reel back my enthusiasm, because nobody took the bait. And I couldn’t even sell my second ticket in front of the venue for a good 30 minutes, so I ended up heading in alone, in defeat, for the price of two tickets. But I suppose one of the greatest virtues we can exercise in life is forgiveness and grace in the face of one’s own failures, and it was easy in this case to do so, given how wonderfully delightful the concert was. Now for a more thorough review of this album (the release of which he joked was what Trump meant by “what happened in Sweden last night”): while I did not listen to Lekman before this album, so much of his persona and musical influence reminds me of Belle & Sebastien, especially the sound from Dear Catastrophe Waitress favorites like “If She Wants Me”. There is a specific genre of music in which Northern European bands inject old sounds like funk, disco, bossa nova, and calypso with a Nordic songwriting sensibility that I can best describe as painfully honest. There are some moments of searing prose that really need the delightful soundscape to soften: “Instead of talking about religion can we just talk about how it feels /To know your mission” from the opening track; “He puts the tumor on our table / Says, ‘So, this is what caused all my fears’” from “Evening Prayer”; and “I couldn’t really see / How I built a bomb shelter under every dream” from my current favorite, “Dandelion Seed”, which I was grateful for him to finish on with his delightful three bandmates, before he returned for an encore solo of an old song “Black Cab” dedicated to the memory of a friend he lost in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. Lekman is fragile and endearing like Stuart Murdoch and infuses his belief in the power of storytelling and compassion into his art; I’m particularly inspired to learn about his Postcard project from 2015, where he committed to write one song a week for a year — much like my past attempts at 365 poems, and even this blogging project. I can’t wait to dive into his discography and follow him moving forward. My rating: 4.5/5

I also have to give an extra shout-out to Flock of Dimes which has continued to grow on me. I’ve already talked about the album a bit before, so I’ll just note that the songs “Given Electric Life” and “You, the Vatican” have joined the ranks of 6 out of 12 songs on the album I completely adore, and I expect that number to increase. Also, Jenn Wasner will be opening for Sylvan Esso August 22nd at the Fox Theater, and you can bet I already have tickets for that. My rating: 4.5/5

I have a lot of intellectual topics to write about but just haven’t had the time to get into the mindspace of it (I’ve even had to concede my morning Caltrain ride to catching an extra 40 minutes of sleep a few times this week), so I will continue to try to carve that time out in the next week. Suffice it to say that the political discourse I see on my feed, from both the right and the left, continues to be troubling, and my open call still stands for intelligent people to sift through the bullshit and realize that the most important thing we can do is find each other and work on developing an honest system of ethics. It’s been heartening to hear from a handful of acquaintances, old and new, who are telling me that this writing has been helpful, and I look forward to having great conversations with you.

In book news, the final book of the Three Body Problem trilogy, Death’s End, though falling short of the climactic heights of The Dark Forest, ventures to the end of frontiers with satisfying breadth. It has firmly beaten out the Ender universe as my favorite science fiction of all time, and I have been making that adamantly clear to half a dozen or so more people ever since I finished.

In movie news, Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a work of genius that I cannot describe in much detail for fear of spoiling it, which is simply to say, GET OUT AND WATCH IT. Yesterday, after a field trip with SUS students to Palo Alto City Hall and dinner, Kevin and I went to see the Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts at the Aquarius (my first time there since it was renovated; unfortunately the theater is not on Moviepass), a regular outing of mine (past excellent shorts like 2015’s Everything Will be OK (Alles Wird Gut) and 2014’s Boogaloo and Graham having made deep impressions on me). I enjoy watching the nominated shorts all at once because they paint a concisely insightful picture of our collective social and political consciousness; this year was an especially striking example of that, with excellent French entry Enemies Within (Ennemis intérieurs) and not-so-excellent Danish entry Silent Nights both tackling immigration and xenophobia directly, and the beautiful Hungarian entry Sing (Mindenki) evoking the spirit of justice and compassion with half the material but double the weight.

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This was perhaps the best week of the year thus far for me, in terms of the arts. First, for Valentine’s Day, Boanne and I went with friends to see Fun Home at the Curran Theater, which has just reopened for this production. Fun Home is based off a 2006 graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (who came up with the Bechdel test) and won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical (prior to Hamilton). Prior to watching this, my favorite musicals were, in order, Wicked, Les Miserables, and probably Rent, which I had also just seen last weekend. Fun Home is now securely somewhere between Les Mis and Wicked for an absolutely devastating story filled with grace and heart. The most novel aspect of this production was having Alison, in the near-present, as a constant presence on stage, observing her past and seeking answers as she creates her work of art. Very few productions in any medium can make me weep, but a climactic, fourth-wall and heart breaking moment in this musical did (and as I later told my high school students, “The best experiences in life are those that make you cry”). I am looking forward to getting my hands on the graphic novel, and I implore you to seek this out if you haven’t already.

That same day I pre-ordered the new Dirty Projectors self-titled album, which is fueled by Dave Longstreth’s breakup with bandmate Amber Coffman (who has some great stuff on her own now as well). One of the most incredible songs so far is “Keep Your Name”, which grabs a piece of the chorus from my favorite song from the last album, “The Impregnable Question”, and turns it sour, the phrase “We don’t see eye to eye” taken out of context of “But I need you” and threaded through a distorted, tortured soundscape. This is the kind of real-time human intimacy and fallout that artists generously share with the world, that makes music so compelling to me. Jens Lekman’s Life Will See You Now came out in full on Friday, and unfortunately did not live up to the joy of the title single “Evening Prayer”, but will probably grow on me in the coming weeks as a Belle & Sebastien-like pop album that is fresh in its un-American-ness.

This weekend Boanne and I visited the SFMOMA and I got to see Sohei Nishino’s work again, a grandiose love-letter to cities, a larger-than-life manifestation of Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City through a collage of thousands of photographs laid out to mimic the geographic map of each subject city. Then we went to see the sequel to The Lego Movie, which happens to have been the movie we watched on our “first date”, and it once again proved that you don’t need live action or anything beyond Lego blocks on the screen to far surpass the quality of 95% of screenplays and character development in films today. Bravo, Warner Animation Group, for putting creativity and authenticity to excellent use.

And then… I cozied up to Cixin Liu’s sci-fi The Dark Forest, the sequel to The Three Body Problem, on Saturday night, and, sometime Sunday morning, emerged out of a mind-blowing journey into the depths of human ethics and universal truths. I know I seem to have more superlatives than is reasonable so far this year, but I mean this: Cixin Liu is an absolute genius, the kind of philosopher artist that should represent humanity in the face of aliens. And The Dark Forest was staggeringly epic in its scope and confidence, a massive augmentation of the world set up in The Three Body Problem that reminded me of the brilliant scope of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, which is now my former favorite science fiction novel of time. It literally pains me to not be able to talk about all the incredible ideas presented in this story, so I am nearly willing to smuggle these books in stacks out of the San Francisco Public Library system to get my friends to read them, or Amazon Prime them directly to you, just so we can bask together in the glory of the story. In fact, it has triggered an idea for a short story of my own, a slight variation on the theme, which may be strong enough to move me to actually write it out later this year.

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With an hour this evening, I’d like to touch on a few outstanding topics (outstanding here meaning simply that they have been left standing in line… I use the phrase “outstanding items” quite regularly in my project work and I do wonder whether the people I work with are understanding that in the construction management sense, or as pretentiousness…).

The Expanding Circle

I have begun reading Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle and it’s been an epiphany, in the sense that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I could reliably anticipate every new idea as something that I’ve been forming in my own mind. I suspect most of this was seeded by conversations I’ve heard on Sam Harris’s podcast, but I also believe that my last few blog posts are evidence of a number of authentically derived concepts around ethical systems and universal morality that are nearly aligned with Singer’s book. If anything this is making me feel more confident in my competence for moral reasoning and may encourage me to write more forcefully on these topics.

Essentially, Singer does a great job making the link between sociobiology (the territory of Dawkins) and philosophy, with a focus on the crucial role of reasoning. One concept he has articulated especially well, which I will certainly want to expand upon in future essays, is that the capacity for advanced reasoning in the human brain, at whatever point our genetic variations brought this capacity fully into dominance, was fundamentally the harbinger of ethics, which only exists in societies that need to defend their actions to one another. “Reason”, in its simplest definition, is the capacity to ask “why”. Moral reasoning is an internal questioning of why you value the things you do, while ethical reasoning deals with socially agreed-upon rules. Singer then emphasizes that “rationality” is a specific line of reasoning that deals with “calculation”. As soon as we need to defend our values and actions to others, we need to be able to justify those actions in some general manner, meaning we need to consider the interests of others somewhat equally. As soon as you are measuring and comparing the interests and values of different people in different scenarios, you fundamentally need to be pursuing some method of rationality. And so Singer’s framework squares perfectly with the flowchat I proposed a few posts ago, his book’s focus ultimately being a step I glossed over, the essential “expanding of the circle” of valuation from empathy to compassion.

There is so much rich territory to dive into here which I think would do good for anyone. Fundamentally our current political climate is just a microcosm of an overall lack of ethical reasoning in our societies. I still believe that the essence of our ethical dilemma is “intellectual honesty”, and Singer’s writing is making this clearer in my mind. I am now confident that there is essentially one “ethic”, which is universal well-being, and there are only two real reasons why we aren’t approaching it: lack of intellectual reasoning, and lack of intellectual honesty. I think the solution to the intellectual reasoning problem is progress in education, science, and technology. The solution to the intellectual honesty problem is less clear, more like a question of personal moral strength.

Apologies for the lack of direction of the passages above; I promise that once I finish this book I will formally update my ethical system with serious effort in clarity.

The Blank Slate

In my last post I mentioned one of the great insights out of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which was that we have hardwired intuitive reasoning in our brains thanks to natural selection. I want to offer a concise analogy here: our brains are essentially like smartphones with really terrible software programs pre-installed, like Internet Explorer, that are terrible at doing what they’re meant to do, but came as part of the package. So what education should do, first and foremost, is uninstall that bad software and install the equivalent of Google Chrome, which not only corrects for serious design flaws in the incumbent software but expands our potential to gain knowledge and solve problems.

RENT

This Saturday I got in line for $25 rush tickets for RENT at the Golden Gate Theater in SF about an hour before sale (which was itself two hours before the musical began). There were only 32 tickets at this price and it seemed like I barely got to buy 4 of them, so for those interested in this strategy, I offer the heuristic: arrive at least one hour early for rush tickets (Note that RENT is unique in offering $25 rush tickets; otherwise you have a larger supply of $40 tickets). I had listened to select songs out of the soundtrack in high school, and sort of understood the plot, but was fully satisfied by the whole production on Saturday. Golden Gate Theater doesn’t have an orchestra pit so it appears that all the productions have to come up with a novel way of featuring the instruments on stage (I’ve only seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch otherwise), and I thought the set was quite well designed in its versatility of movement. My overall takeaway was that RENT is as relevant as ever in a place like San Francisco, including the obvious timeliness of questions of protest and livability, and the more universal complexity of intimacy.

Oakland

This evening I attended an event at SPUR Oakland which featured some native Oakland residents who are in the social enterprise sector, working on topics ranging from local employment to sex trafficking to art incubation. I was hoping to get a more diverse and normal representation of Oakland residents to calibrate my understanding of what matters to the community; the socially progressive elite just doesn’t seem to be representative of the norm. But they raised important questions around minimum wage, gentrification, and inclusivity which, to me, are fundamentally unknowns about mechanisms in urban systems. How exactly does increasing minimum wage affect the community? I’m not interested in dogmatic opinions that align with an unquestioned concern for victims; I want real evidence and reasoning here. A questioner astutely questioned whether a purely dogmatic activism for minimum wage may not have led to adverse effects on employment due to big retailers like Walmart moving out. I would explore that terrain further, asking whether an increase of minimum wage is more addressing a root problem or a symptom, and whether, as a supposedly progressive measure, it is fundamentally flawed without a series of other key measures, like regulation of monopolistic business so that they can’t simply exercise the power of exit, or subsidization of smaller local businesses so they are bearing the cost of minimum wage hikes inadvertently, or simply taking on the perfectly sound conservative goals of reducing “cost disease” in many sectors of our society, so that we don’t need to hike the minimum wage in the first place. Any conversation that does not acknowledge the many facets of urban issues as I have just illustrated may only contribute to the polarization of issues that need to be evidence-based.

Snow Crash

While this sci-fi by Neal Stephenson is the genesis of many fundamental tropes of our modern tech culture, as a novel it was mostly trash.

Movies

This weekend I watched John Wick Chapter 2 and The Red Turtle. I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick, fully understanding the banality of shoot-em-up films and the seeming hypocrisy of supporting such films in a rampantly violent culture. All I can say is that, if we were to have a substantive ethical education, I think we would be able to consume such films as purely cathartic and escapist thrill rides behind the screen of fiction, without any danger of blurring the lines. I also think the film actually is just brilliant in its creativity and memedom (best scene: surreptitious gunfight with silencers in a crowded One World Trade Center terminal). The Red Turtle, in contrast, was 80 minutes without dialogue and a fantasy story told in minimalist imagery that often felt like a zen rock garden in its stoicism. While beautiful, it simply did not work for me, especially compared to Studio Ghibli films that can be profound without literally having to be a Buddhist-scale test of patience.

Creativity

A friend of mine in Thailand is writing about creativity, and I will be sharing my thoughts on this fascinating topic shortly!

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I’d like to share some new music and books I’ve enjoyed so far in February!

First off, Father John Misty is coming out with a new album that sounds thematically closer to Fear Fun. Of what he’s released so far, I particularly like “Ballad of the Dying Man” which has a rich chord progression and classic Josh Tillman songwriting: “So says the dying man once I’m in the box / Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok / And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked / The homophobes, hipsters, and 1% / The false feminists he’d managed to detect / Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?”

Next, I haven’t gotten into any previous Mac Demarco but was instantly drawn to two songs off his upcoming album, “My Old Man” and “This Old Dog”. It’s hard to pin this to a specific genre, but these songs feel a lot to me like Cat Stevens covering Sublime’s “What I Got” with pinches of elegant synth, like a flavorful seasoning.

Earlier this week, while sifting through old Best Tracks of Pitchfork, I discovered an album I had missed from 2016 by Jenn Wasner, under the solo project Flock of Dimes. Wasner also sings in Wye Oak, which put out one of my favorite albums of 2014, Shriek. This new album If You See Me, Say Yes is very much a spiritual successor to Shriek, but the best analogy I can come up with for the distinctive vibe here is that she’s like an electronic Pocahontas. Her voice has always entranced me with its frontier-like quality, and I like to imagine a flock of dimes, like birds, flying over a river of electric current, the colors of the wind the same as those in Shriek’s Logic of Color” and the sights and sounds along a boat ride with Jenn the subject of this new album’s tracks. The whole album is a delight to listen to on repeat, but start with “Semaphore” and definitely check out the last Wye Oak album as well, if you like her sound.

One more excellent discovery this week, courtesy of All Songs Considered and Pitchfork: Jens Lekman, “An Evening Prayer”, which I simply implore you to listen to.

My full February Mix, as it stands, can be found on Spotify.

On Tuesday I got to see Anthony Doerr give a hilarious and insightful lecture at Stanford as part of the Stanford Storytelling Project. All the Light We Cannot See, which I have previously raved about, is definitely in my top 5 books of all time (which includes The Goldfinch, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Infinite Jest, and… not sure about the last one). I had tried About Grace in anticipation of this lecture and hated it, but his delightful talk restored my faith in him, so I picked up a short story collection, Memory Wall. It is the best short story collection I’ve ever read. I had the opinion that the biggest problem with About Grace was plot, and it appears that his time spent mastering the shorter story in Memory Wall, to stunningly beautiful effect, probably gave him the craft necessary to pull off All the Light, which itself is written in short vignettes of interweaving stories. If you are not an obsessive reader like me, I highly recommend you give Memory Wall a shot as it takes much less time to fall in love with the power of storytelling.

I also made a lot of headway into Steve Pinker’s Blank Slate, which has some really provocative insights on human nature and the brain, like the idea that we are programmed with intuitive notions of mathematics, biology, statistics, etc. that in many ways are literally incorrect, so a great way to think about K-12 education is “rewiring” and “augmenting” our brains to think correctly about the world, as opposed to just filling it with knowledge. In other words, we are filling out students’ leaky minds with furniture instead of fixing the leaks. But before I could finish Blank Slate I had to return it to the library, along with Snow Crash, so I’ll have to comment on those fully once I can get my hands on them again.

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As promised in my last post, here’s a very preliminary mapping of key beliefs in my personal belief system, in an order I would consider to be fundamentally sequential as axioms to agree upon, before any useful debate can be had on specific issues of morality or policy. I imagine this as a series of rooms with doors leading to subsequent rooms. If you were to enter this dungeon and progress through the rooms matching your beliefs, at the end, if you open the “universal well-being” door, you’d find me; and my theory is that we’d be able to agree on nearly every important issue, given a similarly systematic employment of empirical reasoning with a consistent moral calculus. But to get there, I’ll briefly describe each of the stages in the figure below:

belief-system

Relative Truth vs. Absolute Truth

I believe this is the most fundamental axiom on which two people must agree if their worldviews are to be compatible. Sadly, the “correct” answer is less obvious than I thought it would be for our country. Basically, we could label the “relative truth” door “alternative facts”, and if you were to enter it, you’d end up in a hole with the likes of Kellyann Conway, Sean Spicer, and President Trump. And anybody else you’ve ever met who believes that reality can be two things at once. Now I’ll note here that I’m not even talking about honesty vs. dishonesty here. If somebody is lying to you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe in “relative truth”; they may very well have one belief and are simply manipulating you for some ulterior motive. I find that much less problematic than true disillusionment, which I suspect may have creeped into the Trump administration and devout Republicans, or will inevitably take root like a cancer as their only stalwart against existential crisis. Of course, the already mentally unstable have long since taken the door to relative truth, but you probably would have considered it impossible to align with them anyway. The final key group that may take that door are religious people, especially “moderate” Christians and Muslims, who proceed through life with the burden of cognitive dissonance, simultaneously believing all that the human projects of science and knowledge have uncovered and their sacred texts. I’ll even gladly let true believers pass through the same door with me to absolute truth, to pick our battles in the next room; but if you are comfortable living on a planet that is simultaneously 6,000 and 4.5 billion years old, I am uncomfortable debating literally anything else with you. Finally, so as to be fully inclusive, I’ll throw pseudo-psychologist Jordan B. Peterson through the “relative truth” door as well before closing it (read my previous thoughts on him).

TL;DR / contextualization of this section to what you’re probably currently focused on: I do not believe there is any useful strategy against the Trump administration without first settling the argument on relative vs. absolute truth. So don’t waste your time on anything but actively exposing their dishonesty, if that is in fact what’s happening, or surgically rewiring the mental constructs in them and their supporters.

Faith vs. Reason

Unfortunately, I believe many of my readers and I will go our separate ways from this room (though, as I have indicated with a dotted line, we may meet again later on). Essentially the two doors I have framed here correspond to the following statements: either (1) you believe that absolute truth is determined by a Creator who will grant you paradise in the afterlife if you follow his divine laws, or (2) you accept that there is nothing after you die, that paradise is unattainable, and that all we’ve got to understand reality is the mental faculty in our brains. The labels “faith” and “reason” are oversimplifications of a series of complex steps embedded here, but hopefully what I’m getting at is clear. To enter the “faith” door is to believe in things which cannot be proven, starting with your sacred texts, and extending potentially to anything else. To enter the “reason” door is to live a much more difficult life, in which nothing is certain, nothing is definitively provable, only testable and consistent with observation until proven wrong. As I indicate, the “reason” door leads you quickly down the hall to the principles of empiricism, logic, the scientific method, and some of the foundational scientific theories we have, like Darwinian evolution.

It’s worth mentioning that faith, as manifested in superstitious and religious belief, very likely arose from natural selection as tendencies to over-assume that the rustle in the grass was a deadly predator, as opposed to just the blowing wind. Feed that basic phenotypical behavior through the cultural mechanisms of our early tribal societies, and you get explanations for everything we could not yet understand through tools of science, and over-triggered habits-turned-rituals like sacrifice and sacred texts, which made life simpler to understand, but ultimately held us back in moral and intellectual development for millennia.

In fact, the “virus” of religious belief is so strong that, through deep cultural embeddedness, it continues to afflict a majority of us on this planet. Yes, a made-up, immutable belief system in practice does not negatively affect your well-being and may even be the surest way to survive, but I invite you to seriously consider the utility of faith when it enables humans to reliably commit and justify the most heinous of acts, like suicide bombings and systematic persecution. Of course many immoral acts remain to be addressed in the next room, but to break free of faith is to break free of our most fundamental and vestigial of crutches. And as I have to always qualify, to break free of faith DOES NOT mean you have to abandon the benefits of community and spirituality that many associate with religion. Why must those be tied to faith? Why can’t we, as humans, design institutions and cultures of secularism that can completely replace religion? That possibility awaits through the door of reason.

My last thought here, though this merits a much deeper discussion in the future: the hardest thing about getting somebody to backtrack from the door of faith and willingly walk through the door of reason, in my experience (yes, even personal), is the deep existential depression that can sink in when the securities and promises of eternal paradise with God disappear. To see how powerful faith is, you need look no further than the poor souls who stand at precipice of doubt, a community and eternity of love behind them, and a different kind of eternity of meaninglessness awaiting them in the abyss below. I completely understand how difficult the jump is, and I think atheists can do no better than to be dutiful supporters, pointing out the solid footing shrouded by the mist. That solid ground is the realization that the question “what is the meaning of life?” is in fact part of the problem, that to find satisfaction is to find that the question doesn’t matter, that without “right”, “less wrong” is good enough. If you are struggling with this, please reach out to me and we can talk it out.

For those following along from the political arena: what does this mean in practice? Most obviously, I think separation of church and state is essential, and it pains me to see Trump wants to “destroy the Johnson Amendment”. Next, if you are a liberal and are fighting against conservative values, it’s probably already clear that it’s religious conservatism that’s gotta go first, from textbook Creationists to stem cell research opponents to radical homophobes. But finally, if you are a liberal you must also identify your own faithful convictions, be they religion or simply dogmatic faith in everything that comes out of left-leaning media sites being correct, or every victim being guiltless, or every “freedom” being tolerable. Only then should you confidently walk through the other door, and commit to the only dogma left: faith in reason.

Local Well-Being vs. Universal Well-Being

The long journey through the last two rooms have finally led to the actual start of moral values. Your choice of faith or reason simply provided you with the tools (easy or hard) to discern right vs. wrong, but in this room, you now have to choose your framework of valuation. There is a dotted line from the “faith” door to this room, because, depending on what religious beliefs you subscribe to, you are in fact still choosing between one of these doors. Probably, if you are religious, whether you’d like to admit it or not, you’re going to pick the “local well-being” door, because your essential goal as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim is to reach eternal paradise and a personal relationship with your God (other faiths like Buddhism are intriguing exceptions to this generalization, proving that religions can map onto a variety of value systems, some great by my standards, but are problematic ultimately because they are unaccountable to reality). Even if you’d like to think that your time on Earth is meant to bring as many nonbelievers with you to Heaven, and that that constitutes a concern for the well-being of others, I invite you to seriously consider the following paradox: in situation (1), you and your loved one both get to Heaven, and in situation (2), only you get to Heaven; in either case, your religion forces you to accept that you still have achieved eternal, unimprovable happiness with God, so whether or not your loved one made it with you will simply cease to matter once you pass through those Pearly Gates (please enlighten me if you are religious and have a defense against this seeming hypocrisy).

So the alternative door here is what I call “universal well-being”, and unfortunately, like “reason”, it is a difficult path fraught with philosophical problems, but it is the door I believe all of humanity must willingly enter if we are to reach anything like “heaven” in the only reality we’ve got. By universal well-being, I simply mean that you commit to the subjective opinion that every conscious being has value proportional to their level of consciousness. Again, I have skipped a few intermediate steps here which someday I can expand upon, but basically back in that hallway with “empiricism” and “Darwinism”, you would also have to accept that consciousness exists, and that conscious beings are capable of suffering, and that not-suffering is better than suffering, and that there is some kind of absolute truth when it comes to measuring a global amount of suffering, even if we don’t currently (or may never) have the tools to definitively measure it. Then you can view the doors of local and universal well-being sort of as doors of empathy and compassion, where empathy is a valuation of individual humans you directly encounter, like a point source of caring that dissipates as you move away from yourself, and compassion is a rational and consistent valuation of suffering as it occurs, no matter how far from you. If this distinction is new and alarming to you, I invite you to read Paul Bloom’s work “against empathy”, but as a simple example, consider that a single violent crime in your immediate community reliably matters to you more than hundreds of thousands of refugees suffering on the other side of the world. This, like superstitious belief, is simply a vestige from our simpler days as early humans in small groups, where compassion simply was not necessary as a concept. Now, we have to activate the better angels of our “nature” through unnatural tools of statistical reasoning; that is the only way to donate ethically (aka effective altruism), if you donate at all. Anyway, if this all tracks with you, then, like me, you either believe or aspire to believe that all human beings are truly created equal, and that moral calculations are generally best made on the basis of body count (whether or not the calculus is easy is another matter). Add on the natural corollary that other conscious beings, like cows and chickens and maybe extraterrestrial life, are just as worthy of our moral concern if they are conscious, and you are ready to walk through this door, behind which I’d be waiting to greet you, highly confident that we share the same values.

Final notes, before I run to catch my train. First, as I have drawn the dotted line, it’s quite possible that faith can get you to believe in “universal well-being”, meaning we are mostly compatible in our beliefs, but the problem that follows is that we won’t be able to analyze and interpret real-life issues like gun control, abortion, climate change, etc. without a similar competency around empirical reasoning. Second, for those who have fully committed to absolute truth, reason, empiricism, and Darwinism, and finally universal well-being (which, I’ll add briefly but can explore more deeply in the future, is a kind of defiance of our selfish genes which makes us a post-Darwinian species and, I believe, is necessary for us to prevent our own extinction and become an interstellar species), we have only just begun the real journey of bettering our society, discovering our true beliefs on political and policy issues, and fighting intellectual dishonesty.

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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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