Journal

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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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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Today was a productive day spent working at home, at the Coffee Bar in the Mission, and at a friend’s house. I sent out a few letters of recommendation for colleagues to graduate schools, did some residential design work, and worked on curriculum planning for Stanford. On days in which I don’t go work in South Bay I need to more actively get out of the apartment and work in focused environments like coffee shops, or with friends, to maximize my productivity. Sometimes it’s literally just the fact that coffee shops disincentivize me from getting up to pee that allow me to get in the zone of work. Or that others around me are focused.

I read an article on Slate titled “Self-Driving Cars Will Make Organ Shortages Even Worse”. TL;DR (look up sources in original article, I don’t have time to check):

  • ~6,500 Americans die waiting for organ transplant each year, and number is already expected to rise due to increased incidence of chronic diseases
  • 35,000+ people killed each year on American roads, trending upwards
  • 1 in 5 organ donations come from victim of vehicular accident
  • ~94% of motor-vehicle accidents involve some kind of driver error
  • (Federal government has a goal to get to zero highway depths in next 30 years)
  • Though above data is not exactly right, we can expect self-driving cars to make a significant dent in road deaths, leading to a significant dent in available organs for donation, leading to a significant increase in deaths of people on the organ waiting list. There are no specific numbers, but my intuition is that we’re talking on the order of thousands more dying on waiting lists over the next 30 years if self-driving cars are introduced to mass market. But I also intuit that this is relative to hundreds of thousands of vehicle deaths prevented over the same time span. So basically the article title is misleading us to think that the connection between self-driving cars and organ shortages is of significance. Actually the author is using this hook to then discuss organ donation policy, i.e. various ways in which we can go ahead and deal with the waiting list problem, regardless of self-driving cars.
  • Major fears concerning loosened organ donation policy: exploitation of minorities and poor, commercialization
  • Plenty of evidence that exploitation and commercialization already happens under current system
  • Recommended policies: “presumed consent” on DMV card, which should increase organ donations no matter what (not just from vehicle deaths), cooling-off period, compensation limited to fixed payments or to benefit packages

Besides the comment above about the non-sequitur of the article, I thought the data and ideas presented in the article were pretty interesting. At least the superficial linking of two separate topics, AI and organ donation, allowed me to consider both in the same ethical framework. I believe there’s basically no ethical problem with the overall adoption of self-driving cars as it will definitely increase well-being just through the sheer reduction in vehicle deaths due to human error (with the effect on organ donations being negligible in relation). There’s really no logical reason to worry about reduction in organ donations, because for a death to have been prevented by vehicular accident you’re already starting at +1 life, and you have a <100% chance of causing another death on the waiting list, so you’re bound to be positive in your overall calculus (other interesting conditions may be non-negligible but my prediction is that they are not, overall). Note that there still are ethical problems within the self-driving car system for the programmers, which I have discussed with a friend who programs self-driving cars, and will discuss on this blog at a later time.

In other news, Congress will vote tomorrow on a motion by House Republicans to curtail the power of the Office of Congressional Ethics. The NYT article leans way liberal in the title and introduction of the article, later qualifying that Republicans are offering a replacement Complaint Review and explaining much more of the controversial history of the OCE. Based on what I have read, it seems like the key difference will be a reduction in independent power to issue and investigate complaints. It seems like what remains, the House Ethics Committee, can be set up to protect the interests of those in power, namely Republicans. My intuition is that this is yet another example of intellectual dishonesty, with House Republicans disguising self-interest under political fluff. I can’t imagine a Democratic-controlled House making the same motion.

UPDATE 1/3: Looks like, with an irony that will certainly continue to define 2017, Trump has scared the Republicans into pulling the plan, citing poor prioritization.

On my music playlist today: Nicolar Jaar’s “History Lesson” and Typhoon’s “Post Script”.

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