Dubstep in Vienna: Or, Craving Things That Don’t Exist

Reading time: 8-10 minutes, plus one short song.

A collection of musings around the topics of art, yearning, and synthesizers. 


How I learned to love music

Most people worry about the future. Some people worry about the past. I worry about alternate histories: things that never happened, but what if they had?

One of those what-ifs has been on my mind lately:

What if I’d been born early enough in history that I never got to hear electronic music?

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I still remember the first time I knowingly heard a synthesizer. (Whatever electronic sound effects Britney Spears and Nelly were using had escaped my notice.)

I was 12, and riding in the car of my good friend Peter Andrews. His mother was driving, and we were listening to songs from the 1970s. Most of them were background noise, and held no interest for me.


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Two People Who Changed Their Minds

My second post at the humanist blog Applied Sentience is up!


Within, I discuss the interesting stories of two people who were well-known advocates for certain political and moral policies, but then publicly denounced certain of their previous beliefs after learning new facts about the world. This doesn’t seem to happen as often as it should, so I thought that Alan Chambers and Patty Wetterling were worth writing about.

Of course, just because you’ve changed your mind, doesn’t mean your views are more accurate than they were before; read the comments for an interesting set of counterarguments from a fellow named “McFoofa”.

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Side note: It’s interesting to write for a blog with an established audience. You take on a different tone, simplify certain concepts, and assume certain bits of knowledge from the readers there. And because I have no established audience yet for Alpha Gamma, I wind up writing things that (I hope) are untouched by any such calculation.

Backing Up Happiness

I just found another essay that echoes An Ode to Phones. The author, Glenn Gillen, owned many possessions (CDs, DVDs, etc.), but moved his life to the cloud as the necessary tools became available.

The most accessible section of the essay:

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, while talking to a friend about the risk of crime and property theft in San Francisco, that I appreciated the magnitude of what had happened.

10 years ago, someone breaking into my house didn’t just carry a huge emotional impact, but significant upfront and ongoing financial ones too. TVs, home theatre systems, computers. Thousands of dollars of equipment and potentially months of effort to acquire replacements and set everything up again. Not to mention the sentimental things like photos that could never be replaced. But today the financial impact is $999 to replace a Macbook Air and 30mins-60mins to set it up. All the “irreplaceable” music, photos, and software is back exactly as it was in the time it takes to eat lunch.

Taking something that seemed to have a high negative impact, and making it near negligible, has been liberating. And so I’m constantly looking at how to take it further.

Gillen’s article made me think about things that are harder to back up than data. Especially emotional states. Continue reading

A Night to Remember, Starring Paul Bloom

East Rock sunset with Tammy Pham. But there is no sun. Also, we hike up what is basically a cliff face covered in snow only to arrive at the wrong East Rock. There are two. Ours has several boulders, but no benches. A jogger appears soon after, sees us talking, startles, and bolts. Finally, when the no-sun not-sets, we hike down again. My bike will not unlock and our fingers are too numb to open it. After ten minutes of this, a man walks down the sidewalk. He looks like Paul Bloom.

“Paul Bloom?” I say, hoping that it is indeed Paul Bloom because nothing else needs to go wrong on this day.


“Wow! I… was in your lecture last semester.”


“My bike is stuck.”

“Oh my. I don’t have anything sharp enough to cut that, I’m afraid.”

“…do you live around here?”

“You’re parked in front of my house.”

At this point, Tammy cries out in victory and the lock springs open. Forgetting Paul Bloom, I embrace her and tell her I love her and release her and Paul Bloom is watching impassively.

“Well,” I finally say. “That was a stroke of luck! Have a nice evening.”

“You, too,” he says, and strolls off into the twilight.

This was my evening. I’m still trying to believe any of it.

Winter Break Books: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

The book: Harvard professor, Pulitzer finalist and Time 100 badass Steven Pinker says a controversial thing: The world is a less violent, and overall nicer, place than it has ever been, in almost every way, for a set of reasons neither wholly liberal nor wholly conservative (at least as Americans conceive of those terms). Then, he goes ahead and proves it for 700 straight pages, quoting from hundreds of books, summarizing world history, and dropping science (mostly neuroscience) all the while.

The good: This is one of the ten or so best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Amazing. A primer of intellectual history, political history, modern psychology, and also a convincing blow struck against pessimists everywhere. You can flip to any random page and come away with a valuable insight into human nature. I’ll do that right now.

Page 182: humans used to play almost entirely zero-sum games with each other; we gained resources by taking them from other humans, and preferably killing them so they couldn’t get revenge. Now, thanks to agriculture, technology, and the concept of “trade”, we play mostly positive-sum games, where both sides of an interaction can benefit without anyone getting hurt. It’s easier today, in most places and for most people, to make new wealth than it is to steal old wealth.

See? In the hands of a lesser (or less ambitious) writer, that could have been a whole book. It probably is. Every point Pinker makes has that kind of conceptual weight, and also reinforces the points which came before. He is adept at tying science to history to philosophy to the human quirks we all see around us. He’s not a novelist, but that isn’t a problem; the writing in Better Angels is so much better than it had to be that I found myself grinning at a passage every few pages. When I grow up, I’d like to write like Steven Pinker.

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