Friday, September 24, 2021

Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden released great albums 30 years ago

September 24, 1991 was a great day for music. 

30 years ago, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind

The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik

[UPDATE: I originally said Soundgarden released their third album, Badmotorfinger, on the same day — which is what Wikipedia said on September 24. But later, Soundgarden did a Facebook post admitting that they had caused the wrong info to be put on Wikipedia. It was scheduled to be released that day, but it was postponed to October 8, 1991 because the band insisted on changing the album's front and back covers. You can see the original cover art in their Facebook post.]

All three albums were commercial and artistic breakthroughs for those bands.

They're the kind of album you listen to straight through, not skipping any tracks, because each one feels essential, from the hits to the songs you might have forgotten about but are happy to hear when they come on (Nirvana's "Lounge Act," RHCP's "My Lovely Man," Soundgarden's "Somewhere"). 

Nevermind has been celebrated for bringing an entire genre into the mainstream and signaling an authenticity-driven reaction against synth-heavy '80s music, even though the album itself has been criticized (including by Kurt Cobain) for being too slickly produced.

Nirvana thought "Lithium" was the song that would break them into the mainstream. They never expected it to be overshadowed by you-know-what

Two features of this song make it stand out as one of Nirvana's best. One is the lyrics, which were unusually clear for Cobain. "I'm so happy, 'cause today I've found my friends. They're in my head. I'm so ugly, that's OK, 'cause so are you. We broke our mirrors." There's so much you can read into that word, "ugly."

The other thing is Krist Novoselic's bassline. While the guitar part in the verse starts at the bottom and climbs upward, the bass starts at the top and descends. He wasn't a flashy bassist who drew attention to himself, but he gave extra attention to this song. He also does some tasteful noodling in the "I'm not gonna crack" section.

The chorus of "In Bloom" is brilliantly self-referential in mocking the whole idea of a band with fans, while being more lovable than that concept sounds. "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along … but he knows not what it means …"

"Drain You" was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite Nirvana songs. I love how in the place where you might expect a conventional guitar solo, they instead do an eerie instrumental interlude with disorienting guitar noises and dissonances, culminating in a frenzied crescendo that leads back to the beginning. Grunge genius.

That same day, RHCP put out a 17-song funk masterpiece. "Give It Away" captures the essence of the band: gleefully sexual, deceptively simple, rhythmically infectious.

"Breaking the Girl" is an uncharacteristically acoustic Chili Peppers song with an electrifying percussion break (starting at 3:03). Chad Smith's propulsive drum beat gives a remarkable momentum to the song.

"Under the Bridge" is a haunting portrait of heroin addiction. I get chills when I hear the choir-like backing vocals start to sing: "Under the bridge downtown …" The beautiful interplay of the guitar (John Frusciante) and bass (Flea) at the end is worthy of comparison to George Harrison and Paul McCartney in the Beatles' "Something."

"Power of Equality" kicks the album off with an urgent note of social awareness ("American equality has always been sour"). The Chili Peppers' singer/rapper, Anthony Kiedis, was clearly self-conscious about this white band being indebted to many black musicians: "My lily white ass is tickled pink, when I listen to the music that makes me think." He makes an explicit call for racial harmony: "Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan!" The song ends with an earnest lament:

People in pain, I do not dig it
Change of brain for Mr. Bigot …
Misery is not my friend
But I'll break before I bend
What I see is insanity
Whatever happened to humanity?

Soundgarden found their voice with Badmotorfinger, which kicks off with the frenetic "Rusty Cage."

"Slaves and Bulldozers" is a 7-minute epic that sounds like a fearsome machine, with staggering vocals by Chris Cornell.

"Mind Riot" is the relatively poppy side of Soundgarden.

"Outshined" defines the Soundgarden sound and attitude: powerfully heavy, and with a determination to get through life's dark moments.

Focus on the interlude that starts just before 3:00. On the surface, there's not much going on here — no key change, no guitar solo. But a gentle, introspective passage like this to contrast with the heaviness is the kind of thing that elevates a rock song, and distinguished Soundgarden from other bands of the time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Do trigger warnings work?

No, according to Amna Khalid, a history professor who says she won’t be using them this year (via John McWhorter):

Trigger warnings, the results have been clear, do not reduce negative affect and emotional distress. According to a recent study by Harvard psychologists, trigger warnings “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.” Even worse, the researchers found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD. How’s that? Repeatedly reminded of their emotional wounds — and essentially encouraged to view new experiences through a prism of past trauma — participants came to “view trauma as more central to their life narrative.” The researchers concluded that, ironically, trigger warnings “may be most harmful for the individuals they were designed to protect.”

From my anecdotal observation as a professor of history, trigger warnings have not had a positive impact on the quality of education. Rather, they have become an all-too-easy excuse for students to opt-out of assignments and class sessions. And there has been a chilling effect in the classroom. Increasingly wary of teaching material that may be deemed too distressing for especially sensitive students, many educators are self-censoring....
A commenter on a public Facebook post says she’s not surprised by the study:
I have both PTSD and CPTSD and trigger warnings have always irritated me. They only succeed in bringing to mind trauma and the majority of it is completely unrelated to what the "warning" is about, for me at least. They might as well run around me in a circle ringing a bell and yelling out everything that's ever traumatized me.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 years ago today

There’s only been one day in my life when I could get a phone call, and without any context aside from being in America, know exactly what it was about when I heard the other person’s first sentence:

“Do you see what’s happening?”

That’s what my mom said to me at the beginning of her call, when I was in my apartment in college at age 20. For me, that one sentence marked an invisible dividing line between every day before then and everything afterwards.

20 years ago today, on September 11, 2001, starting at 8:46 a.m., almost 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks against America.

We say “3,000 deaths” as a shorthand for “all the harm caused by the attacks,” but the harm was even greater than that. There were toxic environmental effects in Manhattan, which have also killed people. There was enormous economic loss (for instance, the cost to New York City in just the first month after the attacks was over $100 billion). Economic loss can also kill people, but in long-term ways that are hard to see. And there were far more than 3,000 deaths in war.

Of course, you can say America shouldn’t have gone to war, but back then it didn’t feel like we were starting a war in Afghanistan. We felt like we were trying to end a war that was started against us. It’s hard to tell a country that’s just been attacked with intent to cause maximum death and destruction and chaos: you’re not allowed to fight back, no matter how much you try to minimize harm and rebuild places you damage.

We should’ve done a lot of things differently. But after September 11, we couldn’t have just done nothing. That doesn’t mean the something we did was always right. No matter how much we’ve gotten it wrong in the past, we need to keep trying to keep our country safe. We need to remember our history without letting it define us.

WTC World Trade Center September 11 memorial in NYC

(Photo of September 11 memorial by Denise Gould. I got this photo from pingnews, which got it from the U.S. Department of Defense photo collection.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Peter Singer wins million-dollar prize

The New York Times reports:

Over the past decade, the philosopher Peter Singer has been promoting the idea of “effective altruism,” which encourages people to have reason, rather than empathy, guide their philanthropy.…

Now Singer has been named the recipient of the 2021 Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award given annually to a thinker whose ideas have “profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.” And, in keeping with his principles, he will be directing half the windfall to The Life You Can Save, an organization he founded in 2009 to promote the idea that philanthropy should be directed at efforts to do the most good per dollar to save or improve the lives of the world’s poorest people.

In its announcement, the Berggruen Prize committee lauded Singer, a professor at Princeton, for reinvigorating the philosophical tradition of utilitarianism — which holds that creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number, rather than absolute principles of the good, should be the guiding principle for action — both within academic philosophy and as a force in the world.…

Singer’s work has long troubled comfortable notions, including about what counts as generous. In his 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” prompted by the famine in Bangladesh, Singer, who is Australian, argued that well-off people had a moral obligation to give far more to humanitarian causes around the world than was typical in most Western societies. Geographical distance, he argued, made no difference in one’s moral obligations.

The paper was widely influential in philosophical circles. But he really shot to broader fame and influence in 1975 with the book “Animal Liberation,” which argued that factory farming and animal research were immoral, and called on people to make their lives “as free from cruelty as we can.” To limit moral concern only to fellow humans, he argued, is unjustified “speciesism.”
When I did a post in 2010 about “the 12 books that have influenced me the most,” I included Animal Liberation and said: “This is the one book about which I can say it has affected my life every single day for the past 20 years.”

More from the article:
Singer — who has long said that he gives away about 40 percent of his income — turned to developing his ideas about effective altruism in the books “The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty” (2009) and “The Most Good You Can Do” (2015).

Singer, 75, has also been a controversial figure, particularly among advocates for disabled people who have contended that his utilitarian analysis discounts the value of their lives. (In his 1979 book “Practical Ethics,” he argued that parents should have the right to end the lives of newborns with severe disabilities.) In 1999, his appointment at Princeton drew protest from the disability advocacy group Not Dead Yet, whose founder has called Singer “the most dangerous man on earth.”

Earlier this year, Singer, along with two other philosophers, started the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which aims to “show the value of embracing controversy as a means of getting closer to the truth, advancing knowledge, and reforming social and cultural paradigms.” …

Singer will receive the award at an event in Los Angeles next spring. As for the allocation of the prize money, he plans to invite the public to help choose what charities will receive donations, from among those recommended by The Life You Can Save.
The FAQ on Singer’s website responds to some ethical questions he’s been asked:
How is keeping these people alive going to help, in the long run, when the basic problem is that the world has too many people?

It’s not so clear that the problem really is too many people, rather than that some people have a lot more than they need, and others not enough. But that’s a large question that I am currently interested in investigating more deeply. I do agree that continued global population growth is likely to make the world’s problems more difficult to solve. One proven way of reducing fertility is enabling poor people, especially women, to get some education. Women with even just a year or two of primary school education have fewer children than women with no education. So development aid does slow fertility. But if you want to do something more directly related to population issues, you could give to organizations like Population Services International, or DKT International.

I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal. Do you really believe that a human being is no more valuable than an animal?

I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human being or a mouse. We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species. But that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.

If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?

Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn’t morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something — that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That’s really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life — that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understanding this. Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a far greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse — for the human, it thwarts plans for the distant future, and it does not do that for the mouse. And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates). That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.
(Photo by Todd Huffman.)