Sunday, January 22, 2017

A brief summary of my current philosophical worldview

I've been putting this post off for many months, but I think it's time that I finally wrote it.  The idea behind this entry, and hopefully future entries, is to capture a snapshot of my current philosophical thoughts about the world so that in the future I may periodically reflect upon how my beliefs have changed.  This post will probably be shorter than a baseline exposition ought to be, but I'm too lazy to put in the time and mental energy required for a comprehensive treatment.

On the topic that I would loosely describe as metaphysics, I can make a couple of clear statements about my beliefs.  I fall firmly in the naturalist camp, in that I believe that the natural world is the only one that exists - i.e., there are no supernatural or spiritual entities.  It obviously follows, then, that I am an atheist.  If pressed, I might make agnostic noises about how I don't think we can truly know if anything exists outside the natural universe, but in casual conversation the operative position is the lack of a belief in supernatural entities.

One consequence of my naturalist view is that I am a determinist - i.e., I believe that the future is determined by the past.  However, when it comes to free will, I don't know whether to describe my position as a hard determinist (who would basically say that free will does not exist because events are deterministic) or a compatibilist (who would say that a belief in free will is compatible with determinism).  I feel like both positions are plausible, and that in some ways hard determinists and compatibilists are talking past each other.  I think it is useful to talk of free will in a common sense in reference to choices that are not externally forced (i.e., freedom of action), but I don't think choices can in a deep sense be otherwise than has been determined by prior events.

In the field of ethics, I would consider myself some flavor of utilitarian, despite probably being a moral non-realist.  My moral non-realist position is that moral properties are mind-dependent - there are no moral facts that exist independent of minds (e.g., in the way that facts of physics or chemistry exist independent of minds).  That being said, I find the basic principles of utilitarianism (the best actions maximize the well-being of sentient entities) most convincing in relation to the minds that do exist.  I have a hard time pinning myself down to a subcategory of utilitarianism, but I think it's sufficient to say that my views lie somewhere in there.  This viewpoint has manifested itself in my vegetarian diet and my support of the effective altruism movement.

I have far less figured out when it comes to political philosophy.  I generally subscribe to John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle (the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals), but I have a hard time definitively saying much more than that.
Another area that I find interesting but don't have much to say about is the philosophy of mind.  Since I believe that our minds emerge from a purely physical system that is the brain, I think that artificial general intelligence is in principle possible.  However, at this point I will not make any claims about how likely we are to achieve such a thing.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Top albums of 2016

I was discussing my shortlist for favorite albums of 2016 last week with my friend Tom Musick when I made an offhand comment about only having listened to one-thousandth (i.e., 1/1000) of the music out there.  This was intended to demonstrate that, in addition to music tastes being highly subjective, my exposure level to new music is vanishingly small, especially for someone who kind of tries to keep up.

I became curious about the accuracy of that statement, and so decided to research it a minimal amount.  Based on the information here, there were about 75,000 albums released in the U.S. in 2011, which at the time was trending downward; let's leave aside the surprising fact that 60,000 of those sold less than 100 copies.  I don't know how album releases have trended in the last few years, nor do I know what the worldwide album release numbers might look like, nor what percentage of international releases I could have easy access to.  My guess is that I could reasonably potentially have listened to any of somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 albums in 2016.  An examination of the albums I listened to in 2016 shows that I listened to something like 71 albums that were released last year, which is on the order of one-thousandth of the estimated available released albums.  And 71 is not really that big a number...

Anyway, to the list...

1. Moderat - III
2. The Range - Potential
4. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
5. Anderson .Paak - Malibu
6. James Blake - The Colour In Anything
7. Tycho - Epoch
9. Young Magic - Still Life
10. dvsn - SEPT 5TH

11. Phantogram - Three
12. Yeasayer - Amen & Goodbye
13. Young Thug - JEFFERY
14. School of Seven Bells - SVIIB
15. Mogwai - Atomic
16. MIA - AIM

Also, here's a shout-out to Fetty Wap's album "Fetty Wap", which would have made my list last year if I had listened to it beforehand.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

A new travel challenge

My coworker Nick Dare told me about a friend of his who has resolved to have visited more countries than her age for the rest of her life.  I thought this was an interesting challenge, and that I am probably close to my age on both number of countries visited and number of states visited.  Having recently turned 35, that is my target for the next year or so.  Below is my current list of both countries and states.  For both, I am only counting places where I have spent a night and/or done some sort of activity besides transiting through.  I'm within striking distance in both categories, though I am far more likely to reach my age in states sooner than in countries - due to being closer, ease, and plans in the works.  I hope to conquer the challenge for states in the next year and maintain the lead in that category until I turn 50.  I'll need to pick up my game in terms of international travel.

#     Country             State
8Czech RepublicIdaho
20New ZealandNew Jersey
21NigeriaNew Mexico
22NorwayNew York
26SpainSouth Dakota

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sleigh Bells @ Neumos (11/19/2016)

I was expecting some hearing loss from this show, and I got what I expected. The show was an assault on the senses, both very loud and with lots of flashing lights (I didn't even bother trying to get many good photos, as they would not have come out due to all the strobes). Based on 2 listens to the new album that dropped the week before, I didn't like it very much. Hearing a few of the new songs live didn't do anything to change that - not that you can really make out much from their live performances if you don't already know the songs.

Rating: 4.0/5

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What just happened?

November 2016 is shaping up to be pretty terrible.  First the Cubs win the World Series, and now Donald Trump has been elected president.  OK, that first one doesn't really matter that much (especially given how little I care about baseball these days), but let's pretend that it does.

Last week I broke my policy of not voting for people to cast a vote for Hillary Clinton for president; I even went through the "trouble" of casting an absentee ballot from Seattle, which actually ended up being not that much of a hassle.  I did this because I believe that Donald Trump is absolutely unqualified to be the president.  While I think that Hillary has her moral failings and sometimes displays poor judgment, I still respect her intellect.  This is not something that I can say about Trump - most of what he says is devoid of content when he is not being inflammatory.  In addition to his severe moral and intellectual shortcomings, the little that I can gather from his actual policy positions make them seem quite impractical.  I steer clear of the outright name-calling of Trump that you often see on the left (e.g., calling him a bigot, or comparing him to Hitler), but I also struggle mightily to find any redeeming qualities in him.  So I cast my vote as a vote against Trump, and not so much as a vote for Clinton.  It turned out not to matter at all in Missouri, or the country at large.

I was looking forward to the end of this election cycle, as I was tired of all the hubbub about these two unsatisfactory candidates.  Unfortunately, the result of the election has been even more unsatisfying, and there will be even more groaning about the winner for at least the next four years.  Even worse, I am adding to this groaning in an attempt to process what has just happened.  What follows will likely not even be very coherent; I'm just trying to capture some thoughts and questions that I have had over the last day.

My mood as I stayed up late (until after 2 AM ET) to follow the election returns progressed from worried to disbelief to stunned.  The election had not yet been called in Trump's favor when I tried to go to sleep, but it seemed imminent.  I couldn't fall asleep because there were too many thoughts running through my mind; those thoughts inspired this blog post.  I eventually caught a couple of hours of sleep, but I'm not even sure if it was before or after seeing the final call.  The couple of hours attempting to sleep before having to get up in the morning were not very restful, either.

As deeply disappointed as I am with the result, though, there is a not-so-small part of me that wants to laugh at all the people (myself included) who dismissed the prospect of a Trump presidency.  In some ways I think that they/we were out of touch with the motivations of an apparently significant portion of the population.

I'm also laughing at the electoral college system, where the election of the president only seems to really depend on a small fraction of the states.  Based on the latest data, it looks like Clinton will win the popular vote by a small margin but lose the electoral vote fairly handily.  I'm not sure what to think about that, but something doesn't seem right.  Regardless, the system is the system, and the rules were all known going in.

It should be obvious that I don't understand why so many people support Trump.  I am genuinely curious to find out why, though.  How much has to do with party lines?  How much of a factor is a growing distaste for political correctness and/or a desire to shake up the political system that doesn't seem to be working?  How much is an anti-globalization reaction?  How much is a reaction to radical Islam and/or the Middle East refugee crisis?  How much does racism play in this?  How much does gender and sexism play?  How much is related to an opponent with flaws of her own?  How much relates to Trump's actual policy stances?

I'm also left wondering what the impact of a Trump presidency can actually be, though some might argue it is more a symptom of underlying problems than a cause for future ones.  Can he really screw things up that badly, or is there a system in place that will prevent that from happeningOn the other hand, is it possible that Trump can actually be a good president?  Is there some good that can come out of all this for our society as a whole?

Despite my anguish, I must admit that it is certainly more interesting to live through such remarkable events than not. 

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Yeasayer w/ Lydia Ainsworth @ The Ready Room (11/5/2016)

The Yeasayer portion of this show was certainly better than their opening performance a couple of weeks ago. And overall the show was worth taking an "unplanned" home trip for. Interestingly, I got a chance to personally interact with both acts after each of their performances.

For this tour as an opener, Lydia is traveling pretty light. She has a laptop (a MacBook Pro, obvy) to play the backing track while she sings and sometimes plays keyboard. It wasn't fancy, but I thought it was still a solid performance. About half of the songs were new, and the others were off her debut album. After her performance she set up camp at the merchandise table, so I went over to ask if a new album was on the way - she said that it should drop in February (yay!). She was pleased to hear that her being the opening act was the deciding factor in me flying home for the show, and gave me an appreciative hug. I thought she was a pleasant young lady - she represents Toronto (and Canadians) well.

The main act didn't disappoint either. They were energetic, as usual, and I think they appreciated the energy that the crowd brought (especially on a few of their most popular songs). I was actually a little worried about the size of the crowd when Lydia was on, but it filled out pretty nicely for Yeasayer (though I don't think it quite sold out the 750 capacity). Once again, they played a nice mix of old and new. For stage decoration they had some lighted cutouts that were similar to the cover art on the latest album (Amen & Goodbye). The rest of the light show was also pretty solid, especially for a relatively indie act at a relatively small venue; I couldn't tell how much of that gear belonged to the venue and how much they brought. As for my interaction with the band... I came across the guitarist and bassist rounding the corner of the building after leaving the venue - I gave them a thumbs up and a "well done", and they thanked me, wished me a good night, and gave me a pat on the back. I'll take it.

Rating: 4.4/5

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

M83 w/ Yeasayer @ WaMu Theater (10/25/2016)

I was just about as excited for Yeasayer as M83 for this show, but their performances were (understandably) not in the same league. I arrived late for Yeasayer - I think because I had the start time wrong in my calendar. I'm not sure how many songs they played before I got there, but I did get to see them perform at least 7 or 8. As the opener, the sound wasn't quite as punchy, and the lights weren't terribly exciting. Something also seemed a little off in terms of matching the depth of their songs to the studio versions (e.g., their closer "I Am Chemistry", which is my favorite off the new record). I'm chalking it up to being the opener, and hoping that their headlining show in 11 days will be better.

On the other hand, M83 mostly exceeded my expectations. I've been a fan of theirs/his for a while, but not so much of the new album this year (appropriately, I think, entitled Junk). However, a few of the new songs came off better than I expected live - I might have to give the album another chance. They did play plenty of older material (though not many "deep tracks"), including a few of my favorites. "Outro", the last track off Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was a great closer to the main set. The light show was also pretty intense, which was another plus. There were a few minuses, though, including a couple of the new songs that didn't resonate. And I wish they hadn't played a shortened version of "Coleurs".

Lastly...WaMu Theater is a weird, cavernous venue for a concert.

Rating: 4.4/5