The misanthropic pianist (1)


As a pianist of sixteen years, there are many things that I struggle with due to the nature of my trade. For example, every day is a soul-crushing battle against my acutely honed sense of ineptitude. Music, perhaps a little like art in a broad sense and yet unlike, is a playground for prodigies and geniuses that, with the proper opportunities to develop their talents, easily leave the rest of us behind. I’ve tasted the wine of this exclusive club, but was forcibly dragged out of it, spent quite a few years milling about determining what the trajectory of my life was meant to be, then tried to secure my re-admittance by saying “I’ll come back if you want me to.” Unless you’re good enough, you’re not good enough. I don’t really understand how people are terrible at music have the gall to try to market themselves. I’d feel quite dirty, so I generally avoid telling others that I’m fairly proficient at what I do, because I’m really not good enough. By now, however, music has become a lifelong companion to me, and I simply cannot leave it behind. Nor can I half-assedly perform something when I have breathed deeply the aromas of success. Long have I been crushed between my stifling ineptitude and burning desire to drop out and practice every waking moment of my life.

The technical challenges that I face are many as well. During my senior year of high school, I selected Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin as the piece I would work on. I first heard the Toccata through a collection of CD’s that my father purchased for me countless years ago, and was instantly mesmerized by the ethereal beauty of the piece. How many hands were involved in the creation of this masterpiece, I wondered, and would I ever be able to play it? Yes and no. Four years later, I still feel that I get worse with each run-through of the piece. Nevertheless, I added Gaspard de la Nuit after a marathon of practice, and three years later, I still can’t get through the entire Scarbo, let alone the other two pieces. In other words, it’s hard enough for me to do what I do without wanting to curl up into a ball and cry myself to sleep.

On the other hand, I traditionally have not had problems dealing with people in my musical endeavors, until I came to Duke. I feel like as musicians, our encounters with people should mostly be fairly pleasant, because one fairly important component of music is to bring enjoyment to the listener. Barring the occasional horror story from the accompanist, we’re usually fighting the cruel social structure of excessive-supply-insufficient-demand rather than individual people. For me, this battlefield unfolds at the piano in the third floor area of McClendon tower, usually late at night but sometimes much earlier depending on how entitled people are feeling.

See, before I even go into my feelings as a human being, I want to get a few facts out there. Pianists are aware that their instrument makes sound, and possibly quite a lot of sound. Unlike the human voice, and most other instruments, pianos tend to be large, unwieldy, capable of creating a multitude of flat miners when dropped down a mine shaft, and generally hard to pick up and move. Furthermore, piano, like sports, is skill based and demands ample practice. To practice is akin to both working out and to studying, and worthy of respect as a means of professional advancement.

How about the pianist in question? I think I am slightly different from some of my peers. First, I am a double major who, in addition to a fairly demanding curriculum, has a variety of intra- and inter-disciplinary interests not limited to blogging. Within my musical endeavors, I also have to balance my standard classical repertoire with my arrangements, my composition, and the obligatory improvisation I must do on a daily basis to keep my mind from shattering. I simply do not have the ability to spend half an hour to an hour in transit every time I want to practice. Nor do I have the freedom to allocate an hour every day solely to practice. My ability to even practice my incredibly grueling repertoire depends on a combination of my psychological and physical state at any given time. If the conditions are not met in the slightest, I cannot practice fruitfully at all – and if I try to do so, I will invariably break any muscular innervations I have formed. Each year I have had access to a commons area instrument that served me fairly well in giving my the proper outlets when I desired them, with the limitations that I could not disturb people who were trying to sleep for obvious reasons.

The instrument in McClendon was chosen over Keohane 4E for the reason that it would not be in a commons area, where people had legitimate rights in making sure that quiet hours were observed. (More on my long battle to secure better practice conditions on West in a later post). Now, I understand that I have some different habits that may be problematic – for example, unlike Clara, who to my knowledge does not practice in front of people, I have no problems practicing and generally sounding like shit before a roomful of people. Let’s face it: classical music, when practiced slowly, is fairly controlled and nonintrusive even if it is practice. Despite my oddities, I do not feel like I am exerting any undue inconvenience towards others as a result of my needs as a student and as a musician. Obviously, people disagree. What really makes me an angry kitten is the universal justification for that disagreement: people are trying to study. This is accompanied with various degrees of indignation, rudeness, and then projection.

For years, I’ve been pretty chill about just getting up and leaving. But the frequency at which this has been occurring, coupled with how snide people are getting, just makes me so sad. I’ve been through a lot and sometimes want to be treated as the strange senpai people just overlook, so that I can do my stuff in peace. So, why the argument that “people are studying” holds no weight in my eyes: First, who exactly is studying? Is everyone studying? Is there a unanimous consensus that my presence is undesirable, and is that enough? In wide-open commons areas, socializing is the norm, as much as studying is. Even when people are trying to get work done, the background level of noise frequently gets pretty loud and distracting – even for me when I am sitting at the piano. Especially now that most of the complaints I get are from people chilling upstairs, I really have to wonder what kind of selective stimuli ignorance they have to be able to disregard the television, the amount of socializing that occurs, and the daily operations of a coffee-and-snacks shop. Let’s not forget the constant influx of people going back and forth from the 24/7 restaurant on the ground level. This argument is crucial because I need to know who is filing the complain against me. Is it the individual in question, or the collection of ten or more people present within earshot? Because everyone tries to make me feel like a shitty person because I’m apparently stamping all over the rights of all these people and saying that my time is more important than all of theirs.

Guess what? That’s exactly the assertion I’m making. My status as a pianist usefully and productively practicing absolutely gives me precedence over any number of individuals who may be using the location. People need to understand that there are very strict access restrictions placed upon pianists, perhaps moreso than performers of any other instrument. There is no portable substitute for the grand piano, and for the concert pianist, a keyboard is more destructive than helpful. Especially at Duke, which has long struggled with dismal practice conditions for pianists, there simply are not enough accessible spaces especially at night. That there is a piano in a non-residential area is a rare occurrence that should be utilized wisely. While asking a handful of people to pack up and leave seems a bit unreasonable, keep in mind that such an option is actually available to them. For example, the second floor media room is usually unoccupied, and there is ample room on the first floor that is unoccupied. Keohane 4E is also offers great study areas that are probably closer for most residents. But no, these people understand that I have to practice, but… No, you don’t understand. If you’re saying “but” at all, you don’t understand. One person’s ability to carry out their work is directly tied to the equipment in a given facility. The other group can carry out their work anywhere – in their room, in the adjacent room, in the library, etc. The number of places to study on Duke are nearly infinite. The number of places I can practice at night, when the typical student chooses to study or get their work done? I can count that on the number of inches on my dick.

That goes to my next point. These individuals somehow feel like the work they are doing is more than the work that I (or others like me) am doing. It’s really not. We “have to” practice in a way that is just as urgent and demanding, if not more so, than whatever curriculum or project you’re working on. Honestly, I would gladly pack up my bags if some dude came up to me and said, “look here, I really don’t want you to play here because I think you suck and I can’t think as a result.” Instead, I get all this passive-aggressive bullshit about how “it’s common courtesy as a human being because there are a bunch of other people here.” No, it’s not. It really isn’t.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Psycho-Pass 02-03


The only thing criminal about Kogami is how criminally gorgeous he is.

Even just three episodes in, Psycho-Pass is particularly adroit at taking familiar themes and tools and utilizing them in novel and thought-provoking ways. Two weeks ago, I wrote that while the door for determinism versus free will had been left wide open, I anticipated that this issue would remain at the background for more robust and practical issues regarding human rights and moral justifiability. In a sense, my predictions were off the mark, but in quite a refreshing way.  Determinism continues to play a crucial role in the episodes so far, but does so by weaving itself into questions of identity, development, and interpersonal relationships, to name a few examples.

Potential, civil service, and finding your way


The mental gulf between Inspector Akane and the jobs she is expected to perform was a major theme of the opening episode, and the second episode picks up where we left off. Many people (including myself) were appropriately concerned that Akane’s character was a bit too archetypical: yet another noodle-willed woman with a stubborn and misguided sense of justice, so the timing and execution of the Akane-centric second episode could not have been better.

How does Akane end up working in a field that doesn’t seem to suit her at all, and more broadly, how does the technology available influence what people are capable of doing with their lives? On these related notes, we learn that the Sibyl system does much more than just measuring crime coefficients and psychological states. It can also analyze one’s potential, which appears to be operationally used as a combination of intellectual ability and the further criteria of being able to apply it, and match those measurements to the specifications of certain jobs. Under this theory, people are assigned not only to jobs that they will most likely succeed at, but also be happy with (not be subject to excessive stress through cognitive dissonance).

The recommendations of Sibyl can be more or less deterministic, depending on one’s psychological state. For Akane, who is said to be both supremely intelligent and resilient (although not yet portrayed as such), she had the ability to choose between a variety of jobs but, much to the dismay of those around her, chose something that did not seem to be a good match. True to the developing Psycho-Pass style, this system does not appear to guarantee what it claims to, and choice is seen as extremely enviable. On the flip side, we are confronted with the reality that people who are less intelligent and do not perform as well on their examinations are much more confined in the options that are available to them. The most extreme example of this is with the Enforcers: many are flagged by a hue check early on in life, and are treated as inferior people and relegated to the most dangerous jobs (or be locked up/killed). In the eyes of the enforcers, Akane’s disruptive hesitation is akin to being a beautiful and talented woman with too many suitors to choose from, claiming that she just doesn’t know what she’s looking for in a man. Sometimes, watching someone who has so many opportunities available to them squander their potential is the most painful experience. The more relevant question is, how can a child reliably be flagged for potential crime before they have the ability to control their actions based upon their considerations of moral weight? The society of Psycho-Pass does not ask this question, but places it upon the viewer. Who can be reasonably held accountable for their psychological state, or does the state avoid any semblances of humanism and just pull the trigger whenever the system tells it to do so? I have all the reason to believe the latter is the status quo that Akane will be attempting to change.

A reasonable claim can be made that Akane’s indecisiveness is due to the cognitive dissonance between her own perception of identity and the situations she finds herself cast in. I would like to take this opportunity to zoom out and briefly discuss the idea of identity in the broader world. Akane is woken up by a distinctly cuter form of Big Brother, a virtual jellyfish that performs psychological checks, holographic interior design, cooking, and even wardrobe changes. While this concept is quite Orwellian, I am less concerned about the blatant intrusion of privacy than I am with the nature of reality. Western viewers will mostly find a lot of common ground with age-old caveats against information regulation in this show, but keep in mind that this is not a Western show (nor does it necessarily encapsulate Western ideas of personal liberty). Let us treat the Jellyfish as a companion that is in place to ease loneliness, and model one’s personal spaces in a way most conducive to their mental health. I want one of those.

In a sense, this supposedly totalitarian technocracy seems to give more nods to personal liberty. Despite the heavy amount of determinism in assigning people to jobs, the overall goal of the Sibyl System seeks to provide a social harmony of its own sort by allowing people to thrive in the environments that they are best suited to. One area that interests me is the overlap between one’s private realm and their public responsibilities as a member of the workforce and of society. Akane chooses casual clothes to hang out with her friends, but with the touch of a button, she dons the professional garb of the Inspectors and descends into quite a different world. On the other hand, the ruthlessly efficient Kogami gives off predatorial vibes while he is carrying out his job, but sympathizes with Akane’s ideals (and even motivating her a bit).

Ultimately, Kogami’s forgiveness of Akane and his acceptance of her ideals represents a both a blossoming of Akane’s newfound identity – she finds a place for her brand of philosophy even when law enforcement has been stripped down of human compassion, even justifying her actions to Inspector Ginoza – and a starting point for new conflicts. Unlike many shows in the past that have found cruder ways to acknowledge more feminine approaches to human rights (according to thinkers like Rorty, this is represented by a heavier consideration in sympathy and sentimentality, to understand peoples’ ills as byproducts of social conditions rather than inherent character defects), we are not given enough information to discern whether Akane and Kogami are working for the light side of the law, or the dark side (or even if they’re on the same side at all).

Man versus Machine


“A machine is only as good as the people who design it.” Akane, Ginoza, and company descend one more unto the breach, but this time with a different set of rules of engagement. First, there’s a little twist to the type of case at hand. Akane’s intelligence is sold short once again, as she tries to apply a textbook solution of measuring everyone’s psychological hues. We are given a much more nefarious case – a murder mystery that holds an air of mystery and intrigue, testing the ability of the Inspectors to actually correctly harness the Sibyl System to make correct judgments. Furthermore, not all the tools of the Enforcers are available in the drone production facility, which is completely cut off from web access to prevent hacking. While many shows of this sort build up by portraying how the laws of the world apply, Psycho-Pass takes the opposite approach by taking a utopian ideal, and deconstructing it.

The third episode provides us with a different feast of kings, featuring a clash of major philosophical ideas about the nature of justice. Some of these intuitions should run contrary to Western ideals of justice, but at the same time appeal to more personal ideas of what justice should look like. After all, Western justice can often be counterintuitive. First, we are offered an even more underdetermined system than normal – while many people are probably still stuck on the idea of whether or not it is acceptable or not to punish someone for crimes they have not yet committed, this episode peels back this analysis one more layer and forces the question: is it acceptable to take action against someone who is not even flagged by the Sibyl System? Ginoza, ever cold and resolute, loses his cool after being pushed into a corner and lashes out at Masaoka for attempting to act upon “bestial intuition,” or in other words, based upon circumstantial evidence.

That Ginoza would now jump out and support the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” by the Sibyl System was a bit unexpected, but Akane sympathizes with the Enforcers under the argument that it is better to risk it all than to let a murderer walk free. Once again, lawyers often invoke the argument that it is better for a hundred guilty men to walk free than to incarcerate a single innocent man, in order to remind courts where the burden of proof lies in criminals cases. In this case, it is the instinct of the hunting dogs that wins out over the methodical justice of Ginoza.

While the general trajectory of character development is to allow us to better understand the dynamics of individual characters, the supremely intelligent script of Psycho-Pass builds more and more complexity to a dynamic set of characters, raising more legitimate questions than they answer. Even more complicated is the web of relationships among the main characters, and the moral stances that each member is supposed to represent. Of all the characters so far, Akane is supposed to be the most open-minded and sentimental, preferring non-violent and humanistic approaches to resolving crime. At the same time, however, she is still in the process of orienting her moral beliefs in a strange world, and is quite likely to change her worldview by the time the dust settles. On the other hand, we have Kogami, a man of many mysteries. We are told very little about him, except that he bears a deep grudge. While Kogami sympathizes with Akane (and serves as a great foil to bring out her charms), Akane recognizes a growing disparity between the man Kogami strives to be, and the animalistic instincts and aggression through which he operates. The real enigma of this cast appears to be Inspector Ginoza, the staunchest advocate of the Sibyl System who apparently is haunted by ghosts of the past of his own. When do these explosive and dynamic relationships reach critical mass? I can hardly wait.

Artistically, Psycho-Pass is a feast for the senses. The nuances in the characters’ expressions are delightfully rewarding for the attentive watcher – in some scenes, they are laden with important foreshadowing and hints. At other times, they are simply delectable: the amount of detail given to Akane’s every expression was truly lovable. While I enjoy the design of an androgynous beauty, small things such as a barely-noticeable blush, a pout, or even twitching eyebrows gives a lot of depths to the show, but also makes the dark and gritty elements more digestable.

It would not be fair, however, if I only showered this show with lavish praise. We see for the first time a few signs of inconsistency. For example, the suspicious factory directory is oozing ill intent, clearly overlooking extremely destructive behavior but not suffering any demonstrable psychological changes. Later, Kogami’s Dominator changes from paralysis to vaporizer even after the criminal had already been subdued. It would be more feasible if Kogami was amplifying the criminal’s Psycho-Pass to increase the destructive potential of his weapon, but it seemed like the gun was reacting to the threat level of the robots. Psycho-Pass is truly taking a lot of laden issues on its plate, through a medium that must carefully pick and choose what it airs – and the order to air it in. In addition to the increasingly complex moral questions, it now brings in corporate and governmental corruption as confounding factors that disrupt the usefulness of the Sibyl System. While I appreciate that so much time is dedicated to the loopholes of the Sibyl System (which in a sense is what criminal activity seeks to exploit), we really have to wonder how such a flawed system was implemented on a national level in the first place. As this show unfolds, a heavier and heavier load builds up – let us hope that this show can carry it with bravado and flair.

Posted in Anime | Leave a comment

It’s okay to be born racist


During the winter of 1997, I first set foot upon American soil. If you asked me to narrate such an occurrence as dramatically as possible, I would perhaps describe my small foot sinking into that loamy soil, moistened both by the humid air of the near-tropics and by the blood and tears of slaves hundreds of years ago. For I was in Alabama – perhaps not Birmingham, as I eventually would end up, but maybe somewhere else in the outskirts, a place that my memory has long displaced with the weighty whispers of extinct organisms, draped only with their exquisite Latin overcoats. But at least I know that back then, soil was just soil, I spoke better Chinese than I do now, and probably was far more intelligent to boot. And people were just people.

As far as foreign lands go, it was a foreign land like any other. At least that was the conclusion I made when I was huddled in the claustrophobia-inducing box of a restroom in the first American school I ever attended, surrounded by a school of entirely African-American students (minus one white kid). Naturally, there was quite the chorus of chinging and chonging, but there were also kind individuals. We could make all sorts of classifications and demarcations, some on the basis of morphological traits, others on the basis of behavioral ones; but back then, we all fell asleep to Clair de lune during naptime, and that was enough.

The concepts of sameness, of identity, and ultimately, of ingroups and outgroups, is something that should not be foreign to any of us. Not as students, not as teachers. Not as metaphysicists, not as patty-flippers at the local McDonalds. We classify, and we are classified. Far from a heretical statement, such an assertion should not offend any sensibilities. Rather, we should be proud that the human thought process (and languages that accompany) provide us with the schematic framework, the gestalt, to compartmentalize the absurd amount of information received from the environment into nice, tidy, bite-sized packages. There is no strict need to understand and appreciate every individual entity for its own sake, not only because such a process is extremely taxing and burdensome, but also because there is a certain sense of immediacy within the teleology of classification at least at the most fundamental level. What is this sense of immediacy, and why is it important?

To explore this issue, I once again offer the assumption that classification serves a functional purpose in reducing a wide range of stimuli into smaller components that can be manipulated. From this, it follows that classification not only serves important psychological functions of reduction and arrangement, but also allows for synthesis and induction. To say that x, y, and z are elements of domain D is to say that D quantifies over objects x, y, and z such that they share some property Dx = Dy = Dz. A secondary assumption is that for any x, for two properties D and F, if there exists an x such that Dx does not equal Fx, the two properties can be said to be disjunctive. In more relevant terms, distinct classifications may or may not overlap, and provided that such classifications do not completely overlap, can be said to be different in an actual sense. I feel like this assumption hews closely to the natural intuition that differences between groups are actual – that is, something that is green is need not be simultaneously green and red. With sufficiently robust quantification, it is possible to construct sets such that there is no overlap between green and red.

I have little empirical evidence to justify my statements about how sets form a heuristic framework for our ability to understand information, but it seems reasonable that classification by types rather than by, say, linking morphological features to linguistic counterparts, would make it easier to internalize objects (and later ideas) that need not be quantified (that is, labeled by a linguistic counterpart). I think this is also part of the reason why there is such a sense of immediacy to our tendency to classify based upon appearance and commonality: grouping by shared traits not only helps us better organize external stimuli, but allow us to synthesize them. If the quality of being hot is shared by objects that are in direct contact with fire, assuming that the hotness of fire is trivially true, we require no repeated stimuli (various iterations of hot objects) to be able to synthesize that touching such objects in that set would be an unfortunate idea.

Having this said though, I do not intend to overturn the notion of fallacy in set thinking – just because no swans have been observed to be black does not preclude the existence of a black swan. While this classic argument is unfortunately conflated with metaphysically heavy terminology (for example, what if a worldbound swan is necessarily described as white, and a bird that has the shape of a swan but is black would not properly be a swan), there is still a practical point to take away – just because all objects under a certain set share a property shares another property does not mean that subsequent objects sharing the first property must also share the second property.

In summation, classification is useful, and thus it is maintained despite efforts to convince people to abandon their heuristics of classification. I find fault with those who are overly quick in their attempts to peg prejudices to power structures. While I eventually agree to their arguments, I simply reject the view that one can condemn someone due to heuristics. As in the case of my childhood, the information that was available to me was a result of my personal experiences. I am not ashamed to say that I formed sets consisting of groups of people based upon morphological features, community associations, and common activities. That was my way of interpreting the world as a 7-year-old, a world of ingroups and outgroups that often left me on the “out”.

I think a lot of the charged terminology in our moral dialectic is charged in a way that fails to be constructive at the very least. I titled this post to point to something provocative and disconcerting; I am not endorsing racism, as I felt the impact of that firsthand, nor am I condoning the actions of those who engage in inflammatory racial dialogue as being a natural part of their mental development. However, I do claim that all people have the machinery and the capacity to form the outgroup/ingroup relationships that lead to asymmetric status relationships. The key word here, however, is capacity. In my case, one of my closest friends in 1st grade was a kindhearted girl who was also black. I learned very early on in the deep heart of Alabama that America was filled with amazing people who were also born with the capacity to treat others with dignity, grace, and respect – regardless of how their minds parsed data. Experience matters. So what do we take away from this? We are not 7-year-olds, but the sense of ingroup and outgroup relationships burn stronger than others. Next time, I will look at the evolutionary background of xenophobia and strike at the heart of a more relevant issue – why should we not regard people who hold views that we deem as “less moral” as lesser people as well?

Jif’s Notes: I originally intended to released my post about Religion, Science, and Epistemic Deference quite a while ago, but there was some foundational material that was lacking. I will try to update more regularly, but sometimes my ideas make less sense in my head than at other times. Photo credits belong to Mark Leong, National Geographic; I do not own any of the works.

Posted in Philosophy | Leave a comment

Psycho-Pass 01


chelly? Check.

My sole criteria for watching a show has been met.

In one of the most explosive openings of the season, PSYCHO-PASS holds nothing back, slamming viewers with harrowing depictions of the murkiest depths of human psychology, and the dystopian society that arises out of an attempt to curb it.  Already tackled are questions of moral ambiguity that other shows take entire seasons to explore. As such, I have full faith that this show will go beyond disparate perceptions of justice (and how to enforce it), further illuminate pressing issues that plague modern law enforcement (and to an extent, human rights agencies) today. After all, with Gen Urobochi (Madoka, Fate/Zero) at the helm, this premier is likely to be the tip of the iceberg for dark, gritty themes that deserve consideration for a long time to come.

Determination of guilt and innocence has plagued the development of legal systems since the beginning of human society. While the earliest codified laws sought to restrict the motive to commit crime by threats of compensatory retribution (Hammurabi’s Code), assessing the guilt of the accused certainly was not a straightforward task. The United States legal system, built upon expansions of Enlightenment ideals that favor individual liberty and the extension of basic human rights even to criminals, operates under the mantra “innocent until proven otherwise.” In application, lawyers frequently will argue that it is better for a hundred guilty men to walk free than it is for a single innocent man to be unjustly found guilty and punished. While this preservation of justice seems to be the rational and fair thing to do given the resources available to us, this view is far from intuitive. For people who have been victimized, sought aid from the legal system, and did not receive the compensation they desired, letting a criminal (or worse, murderer) walk free is a counterintuitive result. The world of PSYCHO-PASS abandons this Enlightenment ideal (or perhaps, hones is too precisely), instead embracing the Sibyl system, and Oracle, a complex network of machines that can detect a person’s psychological state, and labels potential criminals with a “crime coefficient,” a measure of how abnormal one’s thoughts are – and consequently, their likelihood of committing a crime.

The grave system of justice here is more problematic and more alien than similar forms of dystopian justice portrayed in other media, such as the acclaimed Minority Report. Minority Report’s crime detection system was precognition, an actual ability to see in to the future, and asked whether or not a crime that has yet to be committed is punishable by law. PSYCHO-PASS takes this peril one step further, and challenges us to consider whether or not the mere capacity to commit crime warrants corrective action (or in the worst case scenarios, execution). Despite the more apparent moral dangers of such a system, PSYCHO-PASS leaves itself an escape from the age-old discussion of free will versus determinism, and this should be a refreshing break from a trite, directionless conversation should it be executed in such a manner.

Alas, if only Gen Urobochi was content to paint a vivid picture of a dystopian justice system. But he doesn’t stop at this; it’s far more than simple world-building. Potential criminals, such as the team that has been assigned to the new cop on the block Tsunemori Akane, do have some kind of free will in the roughest sense, but they are treated in a manner that reflects a deeply entrenched non-egalitarianism. These latent criminals, known as  Enforcers, are assigned an extremely precarious role based upon their predisposition for aggression and violence, serving as the “hunting dogs” of the police force in mercilessly carrying out law enforcement. Despite their work, they are seen as disposables, people who put their lives at risk and accept death if their crime coefficients ever exceed the limit of the Sibyl Judgment. Inspector Ginoza’s exposition to Akane is particularly illuminating: he explicitly details that while the Enforcers may appear to be similar to the more “rational” beings such as himself and Akane, they are in fact “bankrupt of character.” They lack morality, and thus it is appropriate for them to kill. They lack rationality, so they are less human. As such, they are quite literally enslaved to Ginoza (and now Akane), which is quite a large leap to be justified merely under a coefficient. The idea of rationality being a beacon for humanity – and the humane treatment afforded to those fortunate enough to be under that beacon – is an old European idea that has caused much trouble in the last century.

I fully expect the idea of dehumanization to be the crux of the coming storm between Akane, Kougami Shinya (who appears to be the male lead of this series), and the rest of the crew. As in the philosophical portion of my blog, I pointed out that drawing sharp demarcations between ingroup and outgroup is an almost universal characteristic shared across acts of genocide, mass group discrimination, and human rights violations. While humans are inherently capable of acting out of compassion, even kind, “good” men can kill and murder when they are made to believe that there are those who are less human and more dangerous to society. PSYCHO-PASS makes no attempt to veil how Sibyl clearly cuts society into normal citizens, and fated criminals.

One thing that really impressed me about this show was how the Sibyl system was not only explained in detail, but also torn down in the span of the first episode. We know that Sibyl is far from perfect, and I will even say that such a system is part of the problem. While the crime coefficient is a measure of a psychological state, those marked as latent criminals are treated as such. This invokes a state of helplessness and resentment, as seen in this episode’s hapless villain. Additionally, there seems to be no ability to distinguish between the actual likeliness to commit a crime, and trauma-related stress. In theory, those peoples whose crime coefficient exceeds a certain threshold cross into a realm of no return, a point at which society simply gives up on trying to re-educate them and authorizes their execution. But even in this first episode, this theory has been shown to be demonstrably false. Akane’s ability to sympathize with the woman who been raped and tortured, is actually a behavior that is often missing in today’s society. You can in fact lower somebody’s crime coefficient from a lethal value to a non-critical value, simply by stabilizing her psychological state. Thus, it seems that Sibyl’s crime coefficient values are not a precise science – and I can bet you money that there will be untimely deaths as a result of this.

Despite the very strong start of PSYCHO-PASS, the show reveals some potential weaknesses that will have to be addressed in order to actually convey a strong social statement.  The power relationship between Akane and her veteran group has been criticized – namely, that Akane is too green, to archetypical, a woman who has nothing more than a moral compass –but there is no suspense of disbelief required to accept that Akane is moving from the books to the field, a transition that sometimes really is as shocking as presented here. I do believe that Akane is merely shocked by the dark reality of the world that she now must work in, and indeed will have the ability to make her own moral judgments. If not, we can expect that her indecisiveness will result in several deaths, if not her own. After all, the opening sequence shows a conflict between Makishima Shougo and Kougami Shinya, with Akane nowhere to be seen.

Indeed, gender relationships can never completely be ignored in anime, a medium that is fraught with idealized and frequently sexist portrayals of females. That PSYCHO-PASS opens up with a rape scene is enough to set off many warning flags; furthermore, there is nothing idealized about this rape. That it comes with sexual sadism and mutilation, acts of violence that often go hand in hand, seems to suggest that the staff of this show had nothing so ideal in mind. They want to strike at a cruel and devastating reality that is often shrugged off and played off in flowery ways. We are left with this bitter scene upon our minds, and the almost infuriating indecisiveness and hesitation of Akane. It stands to be seen whether these women play a more substantive role in shaping the moral landscape around them, or whether this show will turn into yet another boys’ game.

While that would be unfortunate, it wouldn’t kill the show. It would just make me a worse person for trying to examine social and aesthetic value within it. From another perspective, this first episode may have done exposition, revealed too much about the way the world works. If this is the extent of how bad the justice system is, and the rest of the episodes merely address iterations of these ills instead of delving deeper into the complexities of human rights and legal enforcement, I would be extremely disappointed.

Nevertheless, PSYCHO-PASS appears to be the show to watch for this season. It immediately broadsides us with atrocious crimes involving sexual sadism, something that is so ubiquitous that most would rather turn a blind eye to it, as well as builds a judicial system that honestly is not significantly different from our own moral intuitions. With such a star-studded cast, impressive visuals with just the right tones to convey the depths of the dystopia, and a memorable soundtrack thus far, I think it’s fair to expect gripping suspense, excellent dialogue, and thrills for months to come.

Posted in Anime | 1 Comment

My slow departure from the realm of casual argumentation

If you have ever expressed an idea something along the lines of “I hate arguing with idiots,” this one is for you. Even if you haven’t, this one is probably still for you.

I love debating and formerly, arguments under the guise of “intellectual discussion” (good one, philosophers), but I’m going to talk about why I don’t do those anymore except in fairly controlled situations. I will most likely be involved with some sort of academia for the rest of my life, because let’s face it, I like words and ideas a little bit more than I like people. As such, I am no stranger to nice, sound, airtight arguments and the process involved in delivering them. Indeed, argumentation is a controlled process in my own little world; one must deliberately and cautiously breathe life into an argument, nurture it purposefully, and perhaps most importantly, know when to let go.

For the last few years, I have been a man of relatively few words. While I am perhaps just as guilty, if not more than any other individual, of rambling on endlessly about my uneventful life at dinner parties, I believe that the alarming quantity of words – both spoken and unspoken – dedicated to the task of pitting our individual worlds against those of others (and society at large), requires some scrutiny. In other words, I am great saddened by the amount of butthurt that is rammed into my face every time I go on particular social networking sites for the purpose of social networking – that is, to give a flying fuck about your life, to attempt to communicate with your person. Butthurt about healthcare reform that is aimed at increasing coverage and access, not to force hardworking citizens to pay for lazy hobos and illegal immigrants. Butthurt about two men making out, the company(s) that donate money to oppose aforementioned making out, and the subsequent backlash of people no longer choosing to spend 2.89 on a spicy chicken sandwich. Butthurt about places to be, people to see, coworkers, work, traffic, and people encountered in traffic.  It’s everywhere, and it makes me want to kick off a startup that offers kittens for hugging. But instead of doing that, I’m here writing, because this is something that matters to me – why I choose not to participate in this culture of self-entitlement, and why I choose not to argue.

Observation 1: The assumptions that make up our worldview are seldom identified, let alone challenged.

If our lives are as unique as we claim that they are, then we are our own worlds, where countless components interact and intermingle in ways that we are not even cognizant of. The way we are able to look at our environment – and in more relevant terms, analyze and synthesize the information around us into ideas and arguments – cannot be more complex and expansive than the individual “world” that it comes from. It is fair to say that to some extent, we govern the laws that make up our worlds. Certain things make sense, through one mechanism or another, and are preserved; other things are discarded as absurdities. The internalized laws that allow us to distinguish right from wrong, rational from absurd, are the set of assumptions that make up our individual worlds, and they are also the gatekeepers that filter new information and arguments we receive.

I am loath to bring out the word “relative” so early, and those closest to me should surely know of my seething hatred for relativism, our reliance upon it, and how easily it is abused. The value of a particular statement or observation is commensurate to the characteristics of the worldview that subsumes it. When I offer the observation that “this cup is red,” it should be apparent that there is no intrinsic value in such a statement. However, our world parses out this information into potentially value-laden components. My little brother, upon interpreting the presence of the cup and the statement attesting to its appearance, may be reminded of the several minutes of servitude where he had to fetch iced water for me from downstairs. My friend, on the other hand, may be reminded of that night of beer pong when nobody could score the last cup. Neither of these value-based connections to an atomic statement are wrong or even falsifiable, but their truth value is relative to the set of assumptions filtering the statement.

This much should be fairly simple and not very provocative. Either should the next link – which is to peel back our level of understanding and to shift from assessing the value of the cup’s property to the cohesiveness of the statement “this cup is red.” In order for this statement to make sense under any worldview, a few more assumptions must be identified. First, the worldview must account for comprehension of the English language, or some analog that would create the same level of understanding. I will disregard the issue of identity for now, as it isn’t terribly important. Second, there must be some assumptions for classification of a group of objections under the name “cup.” Upon my desk sits three types of vessels useful for holding water – two Dixie cups, a coffee mug, and a water bottle. Under my worldview, two of these objects can be classified as cups based upon both functionality and some unquantifiable structural requirement. It is conceivable that someone only recognizes coffee mugs as “cups,” and not Dixie cups, so to point at the Dixie cup and to claim that it is red would be absurd. Finally, the most fundamental but crucial assumption is that our senses can semi-reliably convey information to us, with some exceptions. My mother seems to see the world only in the three primary colors, so this is a pretty big deal – one that has bugged philosophers since Descartes.

But I’m really not worried about Descartes here, nor am I suggesting that we should stroke our chins while pondering whether we really exist, or if that rainbow-colored Oreo is really rainbow colored. I want to emphatically push the point that the world as we see it is indeed relative to our own prior experiences. While most people accept this enthusiastically, few seem willing to accept the notion that because whatever is truth-functional for us only holds because of the set of laws governing our worldview, our views hold no particular sacred ground of “rightness.”

There are a few points to take away from this. Going back to the beginning, raise your hand if you’ve ever posted a status similar to “I hate arguing with idiots” on Facebook, or if you’ve said a statement along these lines. In light of the recent firestorm of things to be really opinionated about, I’ve seen a gold mine of such sentiments. Of course, gold is at least slightly desirable whereas the unharmonious rage of others isn’t. See, I find this funny, because underneath the veil of purported academic/intellectual supremacy, what we’re really left with is people who have it all figured out in their heads – but miss the point that so does everybody else. It’s why I bomb all of my essays at Duke – I know what I’m trying to say, but nobody else does. Basically, we might as well be idiots, except my esteemed colleagues Clara and Ken. They might be derp free. Recognizing this removes a lot of ground for conflict – different people see things differently, and depending on the magnitude of the issue, the issue being argued over might have exactly 0 social relevance.

The larger point that I will carry with me for the duration of my life more or less, is the importance of recognizing the core set of assumptions that constitute your filter. These assumptions can be modified and revised – and are constantly done so by environmental stimuli – but they are still part of what we use to understand and process information. While I’ve been capable of delivering a rather unsubstantiated tirade on how American society is particularly adept at purging people of empathy, I see those around me hitting a point at which they begin establishing their own households and families, finding their own magnetic north for moral and political values, and then defending those views tooth and nail. It’s understandable, but let me offer you one of my key assumptions about my life: while my individual existence is small, the academic tradition that my ideas are situated within, and the agenda for alleviating human suffering at a societal level, are certainly not small. Within our individual lives, it’s okay to let go and not feel attacked whenever our worldview meets a different one.

If you agree with this assumption – that there’s more to life than you and your genes, then this point should not be so unpalatable.

Next up: Religion, science, and epistemic deference.

Posted in Philosophy | 2 Comments