Saturday, March 06, 2010

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

My revised plan to save the world.

This is not one for the faint of heart, though it is less so than my initial two iterations of plans along the same lines (which are too harsh to post).  The inspiration for this comes from a debate held earlier today at the St. Louis Ethical Society, which I caught wind of through the St. Louis Atheist Meetup Group, concerning the following question: "Should China's One Child Policy Be Adopted in Other Poor Countries?"  The debate itself was not very good - the only halfway-decent speaker was a pro-life Missouri Lobbyist on the wrong side of the question.  Presentation skills aside, though, the two on the good side (both members of Citizens for Global Solutions of St. Louis) outlined a good argument for the protagonist view.

First of all, I should point out that this argument is pointless unless you accept the fact that the world population is excessive, and thus a contributing cause of many of the problems we face - the earth's resources are finite, after all.  And according to the below Wikipedia rendition of a graph from a recent UN report projecting population growth, things could get worse unless some action is taken:

The CGS members' view, set forth in a handout, was that there are three (though they combined #2 and #3 into one) reasons for recommending the one-child-per-family policy in poor countries:
  1. China was able to greatly increase the well-being of its own citizens by use of this policy.  Other poor countries could do the same.
  2. China also greatly helped to limit the population growth of the world as a whole, thus preserving (or rather, minimizing the destruction of) the natural resources available worldwide.
  3. Policies of national governments are one of the major factors in dealing with the population problem.
They also provided a few qualifications of their position.
  1. Although their claim is a normative one, they do not advocate that poor countries should be compelled to adopt the policy - they believe that it should be evident that such in a policy is in their best interest.
  2. They recommend flexibility for particular situations - e.g., minorities and families in rural areas - when adopting the policy.
  3. They recommend the use of strong financial incentives and public opinion in implementing the policy.  This includes making population control measures (condoms, birth-control pills, tubal ligations, nonsurgical vasectomies) freely available and offering privileges (free education, subsidized health care, guaranteed unemployment income) only to first-born children.
  4. They expressly reject the use of abortions, instead recommending that unwanted babies be made available for adoption by rural families (where additional labor would be useful).
  5. They recognize that the policy should be brought to an end if a country thinks that some unanticipated situation requires a change (e.g., an epidemic or natural disaster).
Of course this plan is not without potential problems.  The opposition brought up the following worries:
  1. First off, such a policy may seem to amount to a restriction of freedom, and this would probably be the case if implemented in a brutal, authoritative fashion.  One might be able to justify strict enforcement, and therefore limitation of liberty, by some utilitarian argument - thus overcoming the harm principle.  Regardless, the plan set forth relies on economic incentives, allowing people to choose not to comply at the risk of losing these incentives.  My worry, though, is that this may be a naive view: poor and uneducated people in these countries may not understand enough to make what I take to clearly be the proper choice.  There's also the worry that people will try to cheat the system.
  2. The lobbyist pointed out that China resorted to forced abortions and other brutal measures to implement the policy.  This may be the case, but the CGS does not advocate the use of abortions.  As mentioned above, implementation would be mostly financially driven.
  3. Another worry by the lobbyist is that unborn females would be targets for abortion since parents would prefer their single child to be a male.  In China this has resulted in a 1.17:1 ratio of males to females in the latest generation, which he claims has caused Chinese men to resort to illegal trafficking of women from neighboring countries.  Even if this is a pervasive problem, which I doubt, there is a logical limit to its effect.  At some point people have to realize that aborting females is a bad idea.  Maybe not being able to marry off their sons will be a way of sparking this realization.
  4. Yet another counterpoint was that China has too few young people to support their aging parents and grandparents, especially as life expectancy increases.  While I can sympathize to an extent, I would choose the problem of not being able to care for old people over that of having children continuously born into inescapable poverty.
All in all, I believe that the basic idea of such a policy is a sound one, and that it should be adopted in the Third World.  Furthermore, the arguments presented against do little to weaken it.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

I need a new name for the blog.

Google recently shared the news that they will no longer support publishing on Blogger via FTP, meaning that I will no longer be able to host my blog from "my" server (I use the quotes because I don't really own the server - I'm basically renting server space from my hosting service, 1&1).  I'm somewhat ambivalent toward this news.  On one hand, I lose the pseudo-ownership I have when the files are on "my" server, where I have access to all of them in their raw glory.  On the other, having the blog reside on Google's servers means that I can integrate more of the features and widgets that they have available.

While I'm moving the blog (which I'll probably be doing in a month or two), I figure it's a good time to come up with a new name.  I created the current name "Blog" when blogging was a relatively new phenomenon (here's my first post ever from back in 2004, though I doubt that link will still work once I move the blog), and I did not really take into consideration what a name might signify.  In truth, the name is not really that horrible - it's just the blog section of my site - but now that my feed is integrated into different applications on the web (Facebook, Google Reader, Google Buzz) it is grossly lacking in descriptiveness..."Oh, look...there's a new post on Blog.  What the hell is Blog?"

So to all three people out there who occasionally glance at my blog, I am seeking your help in coming up with a new name.  The name should be relatively unique (so that the blog can be easily identified) and somewhat interesting, but should not pretend to be something that it is not.  I will illustrate with a couple of examples:

"Obi's Blog" or "Obezma's Blog": While these make it pretty easy to figure out what's going on at the blog, when I read them I think "Blah!".

"Alternative Brotha" or "Casual Elegance": These have both been used to describe my style of being.  While I don't necessarily like to be pigeonholed by a description, I will admit that I do take these two principles into consideration in doing some of the things that I do.  The problem with these names, though, is that they seem too ambitious.  They almost sound like a place where you could go for daily/weekly tips on how to live such a lifestyle.  I don't post nearly that regularly or frequently, and I don't really have any advice to give anybody.

So in short, give me an interesting and unique name that doesn't generate expectations.  And...go!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lala - my not-so-new favorite thing.

This post is long overdue.  If you have seen any of my recent activity online (Facebook, Google Reader, or certain posts about top music), you might be aware that I have become an avid user of Lala.  The short story: Lala is a free online music service without advertising.  The longer story follows.

You can read Lala's official story about their features at their How it works page.  I'll expand on what I like about these main features, and one additional minor feature, to show what I think makes Lala pretty awesome.

  1. Play over 8 million songs for free.  They have a pretty extensive music catalog, of which you can play any song for free once.  After the first free listen, you can listen to 30-second clips of songs you don't own (you can always listen to full-length songs you own - see #2).  I especially like that they organize music so that it is easy to queue up albums, which is how I prefer to listen to music.
  2. Play your music, anywhere on the web.  You can match your music collection on your computer to Lala's catalog so that Lala recognizes what songs in their catalog you own (no, it does not matter how you came to own the music).  If you own it, it can always play it for free on the web.
  3. Discover new music through friends and experts.  They've got some social networking and cataloging aspects.
  4. Buy new music starting at 10 cents.  You can buy any song as a "web song" for 10 cents.  This gives you unlimited plays of the song via the web, but you can't download it to your computer.  You can also buy songs for download, usually for 89 cents.  Note that if you have previously bought a song as a web song, you only have to pay the difference (79 cents) to buy it as a download.  The song files are DRM-free variable bit-rate MP3s.  In my experience the bit rate is usually around 240 kbps, which is excellent unless you're an audiophile.

    I will add here that Lala's download prices are pretty phenomenal in comparison with the competition.  For example, here are some comparisons with two other major MP3 vendors for four new album releases that I bought this past Tuesday (yes, I went kinda crazy):

    Four Tet - There is Love in You
    iTunes - $9.99
    Amazon MP3 - $6.99
    Lala - $6.49

    Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM
    iTunes - $9.99
    Amazon MP3 - $7.99
    Lala - $7.49

    Basement Jaxx - Zephyr
    iTunes - $9.90
    Amazon MP3 - $6.99
    Lala - $6.49

    Jaga Jazzist - One-Armed Bandit
    iTunes - $8.91
    Amazon MP3 - $6.99
    Lala - $6.99

    As you can see, iTunes is kinda ripping people off (though I will concede that they pioneered the MP3 selling business and make selling/buying music very easy for both producers and consumers), so it's a good thing that I don't even have an iTunes account set up.  I used to use Amazon MP3 quite a bit, but I have more recently been buying the majority of the music that I purchase through Lala
  5. Scrobbling to!  Listening to music is pretty much worthless to me unless I can scrobble it to, my ultimate music listening cataloger.  Without this minor feature I don't think I would have begun using Lala nearly as much as I do now.
I've actually been a Lala member since early 2007, back when their main thing was trading CDs, though I never really used it.  They've since dropped that business model and are now a digital music service.  I rediscovered them this past fall when Pitchfork started using Lala to share music that they reviewed and Google started including Lala previews in music searches.  Since then I've been using Lala to check out new releases, listen to recommendations from friends, and listen to my collection from work (don't tell Boeing).  It has greatly contributed to the amount of music I listen to and to the amount of music I actually purchase.

I was a bit disappointed in December to hear the news that Apple acquired Lala.  Although Apple appears to have used Lala technology for at least one good purpose (providing browser-enabled previews for iTunes songs), my fear is that Lala will be absorbed into iTunes and I will lose some of the features I have come to love.  For example, I'm pretty sure this would result in increased music prices.  Also, if the web streaming becomes part of Apple I think Boeing will get wise to the goings on pretty quickly as users jump on board, and therefore block it.  I hope these worries do not materialize.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Skinny jeans are ruining mens' fashion.

For me, at least.  I'm not saying this because I think skinny jeans are stupid - some people (though not all who wear them) pull off the look very well.  I am not one of those people.  I have what I like to call a "black people butt" and "black people hips".  Besides making me feel like I'm wearing figure skating pants, they tend not fit over my butt all the way (or at least not as much as I would like pants to fit over my butt).  I'm also partial to a wider leg opening that falls over the shoe, instead of showing off my shoelace knot and socks.

Skinny jeans don't directly affect me since I don't really ever wear jeans, but the skinny/slim trend has moved over to pants.  This in itself would not be a problem either, except that all the creative effort into making interesting pants is now diverted to making interesting skinny pants.  And there aren't many people out there making interesting mens' pants in the first place.  Every cool-looking pair of pants that I have seen over the past few months has been of the skinny variety.  Case in point: I've ordered 3 pairs of pants off (one of very few places I've found that has interesting pants for men) only to return them because the fit is too skinny (even though I took care to check that they are not described as skinny or slim).  Maybe I should just resign myself to the fact that Diesel does not make pants for black people.

So if you see a pair of cool-looking non-skinny (preferably boot-cut) pants out there somewhere, let me know and I'll be all over it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Top Albums of 2009, Part 2

We saw in Part 1 that Phoenix topped the aggregate top albums list.  In Part 2 we'll break down all the individual top 10 lists.

Brian George (Obscurity Award, WTF?! Award)

1. Converge – Axe to Fall
2. The Juan MacLean – The Future Will Come
3. Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse
4. Future of the Left – Travels with Myself and Another
5. Pissed Jeans – King of Jeans
6. Girls – Album
7. Shackleton – 3 Eps
8. Khanate – Clean Hands Go Foul
9. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
10. The-Dream – Love vs. Money

Christy Cronin

1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
2. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything to Nothing
3. Metric – Fantasies
4. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
5. Passion Pit – Manners
6. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
7. Coconut Records – Davy
8. The Big Pink – A Brief History of Love
9. She Wants Revenge – Up and Down EP
10. Matt & Kim – Grand

James Kolpack (I Didn't List Phoenix Award)

1. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
2. Atlas Sound - Logos
3. Office - Mecca
4. The Thermals - Now We Can See
5. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
6. Flight of the Conchords - I Told You I Was Freaky
7. Papercuts - You Can Have What You Want
8. Max Richter - 24 Postcards in Full Colour
9. Bear in Heaven - Beast Rest Forth Mouth
10. The xx - xx

Jason White

1. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
2. Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
3. Pearl Jam - Backspacer
4. Manchester Orchestra - Mean Everything to Nothing
5. Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures
6. Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
7. Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk
8. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
9. The Decemberist - The Hazards of Love
10. Mute Math - Armistice

Obi Orjih

1. Mew – No More Stories...
2. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
3. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It's Blitz!
5. Pictureplane – Dark Rift
6. Röyksopp – Junior
7. Metric – Fantasies
8. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
9. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
10. Doves – Kingdom of Rust

Robert Schwartz (I'm With Obi Award)

1. Mew - No More Stories...
2. Regina Spektor - Far
3. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
4. Beirut - March of the Zapotec/Holland EP
5. Metric - Fantasies
6. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
7. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimist
8. Bon Iver - Blood Bank EP
9. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
10. The Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come


Top Albums of 2009, Part 1

The results are in.  My cloud has determined the top 10 albums (actually 12, since the last 4 tied) of 2009.  Ignore all other top 10 lists (except maybe Metacritic's, which actually shows you everyone's list) and only pay attention to this one.

Each participant submitted a personal top 10 list, and I aggregated them using a 10-to-1 point system to generate the list below.   Here's the list of critics:
Brian George
Christy Cronin
James Kolpack
Jason White
Obi Orjih
Robert Schwartz

Since there are 6 individual lists, the maximum possible number of points for a single album is 60 points (if it was number 1 on everybody's list).  Without further ado, here are the top albums:

1. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [35 points, 5 lists]

2. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion [24 points, 3 lists]

3. Mew - No More Stories... [20 points, 2 lists]

4. Metric - Fantasies [18 points, 3 lists]

5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! [17 points, 2 lists]

6. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest [16 points, 4 lists]

7. Manchester Orchestra - Mean Everything to Nothing [16 points, 2 lists]

8. Converge - Axe to Fall [10 points, 1 list]

9 (tie). The Juan MacLean - The Future Will Come [9 points, 1 list]

   Regina Spektor - Far [9 points, 1 list]

   Atlas Sound - Logos [9 points, 1 list]

   Wilco - Wilco (The Album) [9 points, 1 list]

Check out Part 2 for each critic's individual list.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reciprocal altruism.

I have had an e-mail starred in my inbox for 5 months now, intending to write a blog post about it.  It's about time that I actually do it.

The motivation is an article sent by my friend Rob:

It concerns one of my favorite topics: science and religion, and whether they are reconcilable.  The author seems to think they are.  I, for the most part, think they are not.  At least, science is not compatible with religion as the institutions exist today.

As the article notes, religious apologists often argue that science cannot explain our moral instincts of right and wrong.  Wright points to the notion of "reciprocal altruism" (benefit through mutual cooperation), which may have played a part in the evolution of our moral senses.  I think this is right.

I would only add that this evolution occurred on a cultural scale.  I don't think that we are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, but are instead raised to learn right from wrong.  Through teaching, observation, and rational thought, we learn how this works.

Wright seems to imply that "convergence" on moral instincts due to reciprocal altruism is evidence that objective moral truths exist.  I happen to disagree with this idea, but I do not completely dismiss it (there are also non-theistic motivations for thinking they exist).  I do, however, think that the analogy to stereopsis and perception of three dimensions is a bad one.

The main point of the article is that science and religion are compatible.  Basically, you can use the scientific theory of evolution through natural selection (along with this notion of reciprocal altruism) in conjunction with belief in a creator that set it all in motion.  Note, however, that in order to use this approach, believers must still abandon the Judeo-Christian conception of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God; but they can still keep a creator.  This is why science is not compatible with current theology, though it is possible that religion could evolve into some sort of deism that is compatible with this approach.

Wright argues that in order for peace to be achieved concessions must be made on the atheist side as well.  I will grant him that the idea of a creator is compatible with science, and I feel like most atheists (though not the really stubborn, belligerent ones) would do this as well.  However, that is not the argument that theists are making.  If/when religious discourse abandons irrationality, then real dialogue can begin.  It seems logical to observe complexity and wonder if that is evidence of a designer, or to observe "convergence" and wonder if there are objective truths.  Debating from that point of view would be more worthwhile than using beliefs based on blind acceptance of a book of myths.

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