Sunday, April 22, 2018

Emotional classical music

Let's assume, for this conversation, that Mozart > Bieber:
For this post, I'm going to assume a simplified account of musical taste which is not exactly what I think about music (or at least it might lead you to assume certain things about music that I don't believe), but it's a pretty conventional trope so it makes the analogy easier. I'm assuming that there's this "classical music", Mozart and Beethoven and stuff, and then there's "pop music", Justin Bieber or whatever. When you're a kid, you like pop music, because it's sugary and dancey and addictive. As you get older, you maybe start to appreciate classical music more - it's not as immediate, but it's deeper. Arguably, the joy that a music lover gets out of a wonderful classical music concert is better* than the joy a kid gets out of Justin Bieber.

Aspiration vs. Ambition:
Podcast interview between Tyler Cowen and Agnes Callard. (If this link works right, it'll take you right to "on aspiration and proleptic reasons"; if not, do a command-f for that.)

Worth a read or listen, but my short summary: Ambition is just "wanting stuff." (s/stuff/prestige, or status, or money, or a Justin Bieber CD, or whatever.) Aspiration is "wanting to want stuff." Like, I don't really want tickets to the symphony, but I want to be the kind of person who wants tickets to the symphony.
(Callard says that you can only really aspire to want "good" stuff, but I think that's unnecessary - first of all, people don't tend to aspire to like "lower" pleasures", and second of all, "good" is a little arbitrary.)

Another essay by Callard. An excerpt I love: if you have a friend Phil, who just likes donuts and reality TV and other "low" pleasures, but you're trying to open his eyes to "better" things, what you are asking him is "to try to believe them to be more valuable than he has currently has reason to, in order to learn their true value."

Emotions in place of music
Ok, I was just watching Saw (bear with me here; also goriness alert; also mild spoilers) so I was watching Saw** and the guy is like "I have to help my family enough that I'll even saw off my own leg to help them." And it's not even just "give up your foot", it's like "give up your foot and hope that you don't bleed to death and hope that you don't get otherwise killed etc, given that you've been trapped by a sadistic serial killer" - it's like "probably give yourself a painful death, in order to maybe help your family."

If I were his family, I'd probably be like "dude, don't worry about it, don't saw your leg off; either we'll find another way out of this or else we'll probably die anyway, b/c serial killer and all; you don't have to saw off your own leg in the off chance that it'll help us." But you don't start a family because you want them to be loved; indeed, half of your future family doesn't even exist yet! You start a family because you want to love them. You want to feel that love that's strong enough that you'd saw off your own leg to help them.

Let me try that again, with a less morbid example:
When you were a kid, you learned that getting Christmas presents was great! The older you get, the more you realize you actually prefer giving presents. It's a harder emotion to get into, but it is deeper and more satisfying.

So what do we do?
Is it good to aspire to liking classical music, or to aspire to liking gift-giving over gift-receiving? Well, good for whom? I think it's ultimately good for you if you aspire. But it might just be natural. Like, if you're satisfied by donuts and Bieber, go for it. The only danger comes when you don't know that you'd be happier if you aspired higher. Like, if you just get bored and depressed with Bieber, but you don't realize that there's a better option out there (though it does take some work).

Also, how do we aspire? I like Callard's concept of "proleptic reasons" - you can have your cognitive part know something that your feelings side doesn't know, but the feelings side lets you back into it. Like, you can think "classical music is really rich", but that won't make you actually start doing it. But maybe you start dating someone who likes classical, so you go with them because you're into them. Then over time you start liking classical for its own sake.

A neat corollary:
This may have something to do with the length of life that you've experienced. If your life is 5 years long, the thrill of getting presents might last you through that! If your life is 50 years long, you realize that the constant sugar high gets old, and you want something that's more complex and lasting, so you skip the Bieberesque gift-giving and go for the Mozartian gift-receiving.

What if our lives get longer? Do we get into more complex emotions? I'd have to think so. And that if you're 1000 years old, you could have some really-complex really-wonderful emotions that look super alien to a younger kid, kind of like how enjoying Mozart can feel impossible to a kid.

* one of the best moments of grad school, in retrospect (though not at the time) was when we had to go around the room and describe our research to professor and design researcher John Zimmerman in a class. Everyone else in the class described their stuff, and he was like, "ok." When it got to me, I mumbled something about "studying social media in cities in order to make cities better." And he just started asking me "what do you mean by "better"? Better in what way? Better for whom?" and I was totally taken off guard, because I admittedly had no good answers. Then I got mad because I felt like he was singling me out. But he was definitely right: "better" is a cop out when you don't know what you're talking about. Most things will be better for some people, in some ways, and worse in others.

** ok, two more asides:
1. this movie was way better than I expected. I mean, low expectations, and it's not a masterpiece, but it was a solid low-budget suspense-thriller. (that somehow got Cary Elwes, Donald Glover, and Ken Leung? Maybe not super low-budget. Felt like it though.) Unlike how it was described, it wasn't just a torture-porn-fest (though there was a solid 10 minutes of that).
2. I have to point out how this movie is oddly appropriate to talk about in a conversation about high/low culture :-P

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Links Roundup

Name of the Year is going on now, down to the Sweet Sixteen. Current status:
- Bulltron Regional is a powerhouse. Looks like Salami Blessing might edge out Miracle Crimes (fair enough) but Mosthigh Thankgod might take a fall too, which is surprising. Jimbob Ghostkeeper is a pretty good name though. I would send any of these to the final four; pity only one can make it.
- Fruithandler and Dragonwagon regions are less exciting. "Megha" is far enough from "Mega" that Dr. Megha Panda is not quite as great as our other two amazing animal names. I guess I'd go with "Delicious Peters" over "Chardonnay Beaver" but in both cases I am snickering like a 12 year old.
- Chrotchtangle Regional has my two favorites: Dr. Narwhals Mating and Dr. Taekwondo Byrd. Mating is still my pick for the overall winner, and is sailing past Beau Titsworth, but Byrd is in trouble.
Get your votes in!

I should probably gather supplies for when an earthquake hits, and this seems a decent guide.

Peter Norvig's Pytudes - I thought "I should do some of these", because fluency, esp with Pandas and python plotting, would be really nice to build. However, they're not about that. However however, they are pretty cool. I expect I would have spent a lot of time on these if I were in college or something.

Kevin Love, Cleveland Cav, opens up about panic attacks and anxiety. Respect. And "everyone is going through something" should probably be a constant motto in the back of everyone's head.

Janelle Shane is still one of my favorite bloggers. Here she collects a bunch of "neural networks beating the system" examples.

This takedown of Chick-fil-A is mayyybe a culture wars guilty pleasure, but I loved the writing:
"The air smelled fried."
"David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s vice-president of restaurant experience, told BuzzFeed that he strives for a “pit crew efficiency, but where you feel like you just got hugged in the process.” That contradiction, industrial but claustral, is at the heart of the new restaurant—and of Chick-fil-A’s entire brand."
"Most restaurants take pains to distance themselves from the brutalities of the slaughterhouse; Chick-fil-A invites us to go along with the Cows’ Schadenfreude."
"Homogeneous food is comfort food, and chains know that their primary appeal is palliative."

A mostly... interesting?... take on consciousness, AI, and "being human": it's mostly about being wrong all the time. I don't know if this is factually accurate (or indeed, if it's pinned down enough to even be falsifiable), but it's a kinda cool literary look at our minds. Helpful reminders: 1. we *are* wrong most of the time, 2. we're more like a city than a computer, 3. "The only reason I can think of to build [self-conscious] machines is to employ more shrinks."
Helpful reminder that could have been added: strong AI does not necessarily mean "thinking just like humans do."

Could I do a links post without linking to a Slate Star Codex? Probably, but not this time. Recommendations vs. Guidelines - or, if that title is still as opaque to you as it is to me, consider it "recommendations vs. decision (and action) trees." I want decision/action trees for everything in my life. I want to know not only "what is the best toothpaste," but "what's the decision tree for toothpastes." The Wirecutter/The Sweethome are good at this, and sometimes I find a good guide elsewhere (like this for depression.) I should start keeping a folder of these or something.

(btw my current toothpaste decision tree is: "do you get canker sores? if so, then find a no-SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) toothpaste, like some of the Jason or Sensodyne ones - but make sure it's still got fluoride. SLS is actually bad for canker sores, but fluoride is good for your teeth, and only tinfoil-hat types think fluoride is bad. If you don't get canker sores, any fluoride toothpaste is fine. Colgate Total at one point had an extra active anti-gingivitis ingredient that my dentist said was good, but who knows, they might all have that now." Ideally I would also have links attached to this decision tree! But I don't; and maybe that is why people don't do this, because writing up-to-date well-researched decision trees is hard.)

Friday, April 13, 2018

I listened to Sam Harris and Ezra Klein debate because I'm kind of dumb

You can too, if you're so inclined: If you're not, please ignore this whole thing; I kind of wish I had all this time back. However, maybe it helped me crystallize some of my thoughts around the issue.

Why care?
I care about the issue of "this white guy's life got ruined by Political Correctness!" because I feel like I am one of the people who should be most sympathetic to it (white/male/every privileged status you can imagine, and very much into logic and clear thinking), and I'm not very sympathetic to it. As a result, I feel like I have a nonzero obligation to talk about it. (Kinda like how the onus is really on the sane "never-Trump" conservatives to speak up these days. Your fellow GOPs (and members of congress!) who enjoy the Trump garbage fire will never listen to a bike-riding techboi from San Francisco, but they might listen to you if you have historically cared about things like "fiscal responsibility" and "acting like adults." But I digress.)

Anyway, yeah, I got to it through Harris's podcast, which I recently started listening to, because he talks about interesting things. But man, he sounds really bad here.

Background: Sam Harris had Charles Murray on his podcast like a year ago. Charles Murray wrote a book like 20 years ago in which he talked about how maybe white people and black people just have different IQs. His, uh, career has suffered because of it; he's still (sometimes violently) protested when he comes to give a talk on college campuses. Ezra Klein wrote some articles excoriating Harris for having him on. Feud, etc, and they eventually got around to having a discussion on each of their podcasts. Like, props to them for getting to that point.

Harris's take: yes, racism is still happening and we need to fix it, no arguments there. But Murray's book is just science. Maybe the fact about IQ is true, and just by bringing it up, Murray got his life ruined. This is not good; we need free speech, not "politically correct" mob justice.

Klein's and my takes, and I credit Klein with articulating most of them better than I could have:

1. Science is usually not a "disinterested list of facts." That is almost never the case. Sam, you're a philosopher and a PhD, you should know that. Even choosing what facts to research is not disinterested. (To Harris's credit, he apparently grilled Murray on this - "why even study racial differences in IQ?" He doesn't agree with Murray, he just thinks Murray shouldn't be so vehemently shunned.)

2. Murray is not a disinterested observer who wrote down disinterested lists of facts and got his life ruined. He's a longtime conservative think-tanker. After arguing "black people have lower IQs", he went on to argue "well, black people are poor, nothing we can do about it, oh well; cut all these social programs." Casting him as this unlucky fact purveyor is far too generous.

3. White people through the ages keep studying stuff like this, finding "huh, white people are just better than black people, it's just science." Obviously, every time, they're being idiots, and attributing things to innate genetics that are better attributed to the fact that white people forcefully subjugated black people and installed hundreds of years of laws to ensure that they remained second-class citizens. Therefore, if you're going to argue "huh, white people are just better, because science", it's on you to prove why it's different this time.

4. Harris gets very frustrated whenever anyone resorts to "identity politics", but doesn't realize that he, too, plays identity politics. Why does he care about Murray? Murray's in his tribe: white men who might say "politically incorrect" things. Klein kept bringing this up, Harris kept denying it.

5. "Political Correctness can go too far, but it probably isn't this time." - My Law of Political Correctness I Just Made Up. Corollary: if you're going to argue "PC has gone too far", you have to hold yourself to a very high standard. You have to be incredibly pure of motive and strenuously consider that you might be wrong. Murray doesn't and isn't. Furthermore: every time you argue "PC has gone too far" but you're actually being a goon, you make it harder for the next time someone has to argue "PC has gone too far."

So, similar to that time I got in an argument with other people I listened to on a podcast, my conclusion remains "Yes, I'm sympathetic to the argument that Political Correctness might go too far, and cause real harm. But this guy is not your poster child!"

Did I read Murray's book, listen to Harris's podcast, or read Klein's articles? Nope. Feel free to take this blog post with as many grains of salt as you like. Anyway, whew, got that out of my system; still wish I had my time back, but what can you do.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Writing about suffering to understand what I think about it

Podcast interview with Dan Pink, pop-psych author; mentioned how he finds writing a book proposal really helpful because it helps him think about a thing. It's not that he does all the research and then writes it down; writing the book proposal is part of the research.

(That's kinda a purpose of this blog, which maybe I had never realized until now.)


I don't know what to do with suffering. Here are two seemingly-opposing points of view:

1. Suffering is just bad; you should try to avoid it.
2. Some suffering can be good.

Ok, obviously not all suffering is good - if it were, I should be flagellating myself in the streets. There is some suffering that is just stupid. So that leaves us with, "can suffering be good?"

Points for "yes suffering can be good":
- Viktor Frankl
- the Catholic Church
- "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"
- some kind of gut feeling that I can't really explain; but my basic morality was very informed by Methodists and Catholics so I don't trust this very much

Points for "no, suffering can't be good":
- well, the obvious: it feels bad! and if it feels good (say, if you're a masochist), it's not really suffering then, is it?
- by what mechanism can suffering be good?
- the idea that suffering can be good can keep you from alleviating your suffering. Or, "of course The Man wants you to think suffering is ok."

What are some examples of suffering that is good?
1. You are working hard on a project, but you finish it and you've done a great job! Your hard work involved suffering.
2. You are caring for a beloved family member dealing with a sickness, and it's hard, but they appreciate it and you are helping them feel better.
3. That family member dies. You feel very sad.

In case 1, would it have been better if you hadn't suffered? I mean, say the outcome is the same. Maybe it wouldn't mean as much to you. Like, if you're a kid on the playground trying to dunk a basketball and it's really hard but you keep practicing jumping and you finally do it, that's the best day of your life! If you're Lebron and you dunk, whatever.

In case 2, what if you didn't suffer? Like, you help them, but it's really no skin off your back. Maybe they're not as close to you then? They appreciate it, but they know that it's easy to you.

In case 3, what if you didn't suffer? I guess if you just shrugged and said "whatever"... well, everyone would think you're a monster, but more importantly maybe you'd have been missing out on a deep relationship.


Frost and Fire is a short story by Ray Bradbury that I keep coming back to, mostly for one scene. In this world, the sun is very very hot, and so there's only like an hour at dawn and an hour at dusk where the outside is habitable; otherwise it's skin-meltingly hot and people live in these caves. When they have to settle a dispute, instead of physically fighting each other, the two combatants will just stand outside at dawn and suffer as long as they can; first one to go back inside loses the dispute.

Evolutionary biologists (I think) talk about "costly signaling": mates are attracted to animals with very visible negative traits, because "I can survive even with this bad thing" suggests "I am very fit." Something about big antlers or something - doesn't really help, just makes life difficult, but if you can deal even with these antlers, well, you must be a real prize.

Economists would talk about costs too, and I don't know how, but there's some idea of raising costs for things. Like, congestion pricing in cities ("everywhere you might enter central London in a car, you have to pay a $20 toll"). That's just worse for all the drivers - but makes for a better city overall, even if they just burned the collected tolls. Sometimes we can inject suffering into a system that didn't have it before, and it will make the city run better.

None of these are really justifications for suffering, as a human; you're not going to win a fight or find a mate or get less traffic just because you suffered. Actually, none of this may be related to the conversation at all. Makes me feel clever, though, to talk about it.


Another wrinkle about suffering comes from the Buddhists. AFAIK, they all tend to make an important distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is just pain; suffering is all the stuff our conscious mind layers on top of it.

For example, you stub your toe on a table leg. "Ouch!" is pain. "I'm so stupid, how could I have not seen that table leg?" is suffering.

Getting good at dealing with suffering (and lessening it, by not shooting more arrows at yourself when you do get hit by an arrow) is maybe the entire point of Buddhist teaching.

(obligatory IANABuddhistTeacher)

So instead maybe we should be asking "Can pain be good?" And of course, yes it can; it makes you get your hand away from the hot stove. It might even be good in stuff like case 3 above, with the family member dying. I've had painful experiences that I wouldn't want to undo; somehow the feelings, however painful, seem worthwhile.

Similarly, if you imagine the Buddha, I don't think he'd see a family member die and go "whatever, no problem!" I think he'd be very sad. I guess he'd just avoid any shooting-more-arrows-at-himself.


I don't have any great answers here, but bringing them all together:
- sometimes physical pain is good
- sometimes emotional pain even is good, like the family member dying
- adding suffering and second arrows to it maybe isn't useful
- did I just talk myself into just accepting the Buddhist position whole hog?

How can I apply it to my immediate problem, which is that my cat Humpty won't shut up and keeps waking me up at 6:30am?

I guess, just deal with it - the pain may help me deepen my relationship with cat; laughing about it may deepen my relationship with Tati; gives me something to make small talk about at work. At least, it's interesting. That is how I think about these things when traveling: even the dumbest and worst experiences lead to great memories. At any rate, avoid second-arrowing, like "will he ever stop meowing?" or "why did we even get this stupid cat?"

You know how, when you exercise a lot, you hurt but it feels virtuous? Maybe that's what I ought to start doing about pain in general. Like, with cat making me sleep-deprived, maybe I just try to say "yep, I am dealing with this pain; it is making me stronger/wiser/better, or at least making a good memory."

(That's kinda nauseatingly cloying. Still the best answer I've got, though.)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

It seems valuable to blog when an art really jumps out at me

In this case, it's Annihilation.

Sci fi/horror movie about an area in Florida that has become kind of shimmery, and nobody who goes in comes back out.

So good! Tense, disturbing, thoughtful (though, many questions and few answers), trippy, beautiful sound/music, wonderfully monstrous creatures. Soft sci fi about "what if mutation got cranked up to 1000?", and a soft psychological thriller about "why do people self destruct?", all in one.

Riyl: mother!, Sunshine, Ex Machina (same writer/director), Alien, Black Swan

Also, video game that continues to stick with me: Crypt of the Necrodancer, in which I finally finished an All Zones run with every character except Aria (f that) and of course Coda. Jeez, I can't imagine an All Characters run; it'd take hours of perfection.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

I oughtn't even *blog* about Terry Gilliam

Like, I sweat Gilliam's movies pretty hard. Ask Tati about Brazil. I like it much more than I should. I'll go out of my way to tell you how good The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was. So the news that he's being a jerk about women and #metoo is pretty sad. I was gonna write a clever tweet, and then realized, nope, tweeting is really the worst response to something like this. So I spent more time to write more of a blog? *sigh* I guess it's just that, because I sweat his movies, I feel a need to say something, when I don't need to say anything about, say, Woody Allen.

I can't find the full interview. Here's the best subset I could get.

"the #MeToo movement has morphed into "mob rule"" - no, stop. mob rule is when people get killed, not when people say mean things about ├╝berfamous Gilliam and Damon for a couple days, and Gilliam and Damon go on with their ├╝bersuccessful lives.

"Weinstein "is a monster" and that there are "plenty of monsters out there... There are other people (still) behaving like Harvey" in the film industry, abusing their power for sex." - I am confident this is true!

"But Gilliam said the reaction against the wave of sexual abuse and harassment revelations had become ugly and "simplistic... people are frightened to say things, to think things." - uhh - like, this statement is true, but tarnished by the fact that most people saying it are being assholes.

"It is a world of victims. I think some people did very well out of meeting with Harvey and others didn't. The ones who did knew what they were doing. These are adults, we are talking about adults with a lot of ambition.
"Harvey opened the door for a few people, a night with Harvey -- that's the price you pay,"" - are you insane? justifying sexual-favors-for-success?

"the atmosphere around #MeToo has "got silly, people are being described in ridiculous terms as if there is no real humanity left anymore.
"I feel sorry for someone like Matt Damon who is a decent human being. He came out and said all men are not rapists, and he got beaten to death. Come on, this is crazy!"" ... uh oh, I think you're either straw-manning Damon's critics, or motte-and-baileying.
(side note: Matt Damon said some things that I agree with and some things that I don't. He looks a lot better than Gilliam in this situation.)

"I know enough girls who were in Harvey's suites who were not victims and walked out." - yeah, and Jeffrey Dahmer didn't murder everyone he knew.

"It's crazy how simplified things are becoming. There is no intelligence anymore and people seem to be frightened to say what they really think. Now I am told even by my wife to keep my head a bit low" - well... I guess your old beliefs are becoming unacceptable? And given how crummy they are, I'm ok with that? I agree with your point that everything is just knee-jerk good-or-bad these days. But we need a better arguer against this tendency.

"It's like when mob rule takes over, the mob is out there they are carrying their torches and they are going to burn down Frankenstein's castle" - no, it's like if the mob got real mad at Frankenstein for a couple days and, like, didn't buy his movies on Amazon or something.


And why the hell am I blogging about this? Why did I let you take an hour (or more?) of my day, you old goat with crummy old goat beliefs? And why is everyone who's saying "let's stop the witch hunt" acting so much like a witch?

I guess it's just another point in favor of the idea that you can argue difficult things publicly, but you gotta be superjesus. Gilliam, you have some points, but you also have a lot of antiquated and/or otherwise shitty beliefs; so as a whole, best to keep them to yourself.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Also, forget David Benatar

I heard him on Sam Harris's podcast (who I also have mixed feelings about but often agree with) and Harris had basically the same issue that I did: "you're kinda just proclaiming The Asymmetry."

Refresher: Benatar's big "asymmetry" is like this: good experiences are good, and bad ones are bad. The absence of bad things (if a person didn't exist) is good, but the absence of good things (if a person didn't exist) isn't bad because there's nobody who's around to miss the good things.

My and Sam's response: what the hell! You're just saying that. We can just as easily say "the absence of bad things isn't good, because there's nobody around who's not experiencing bad things."

If you don't accept The Asymmetry, most of the rest of his book doesn't add up. (You could instead be all Buddhist-ish and say "life is always just negative things; the best you can do is have no negative things", which neatly solves some population ethics problems still, but I don't think I believe that either.)

Also apparently he wrote this too, so, uh, that's embarrassing.