Anniversary Post: Royal Greenwich Observatory

Royal Greenwich ObservatoryOn this day way back in 1675, King Charles II ordered that the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) be built. If you’ve ever wondered why we have the random Greenwich Mean Time, it is thanks to this iconic observatory — the first specifically built one in Britain. It really isn’t an observatory anymore. Slowly work at the RGO was moved to other, more appropriate locations. Since 1998, it is a museum. But what a museum! That’s my idea of a good vacation — as long as there are pubs close by.

Oh, what a long way we’ve come! Just 340 years ago we had kings who cared about theoretical and practical science. And now here in the United States, we have a major political party for whom science is but a play thing to be used when it furthers its ideological goals but mostly just ignored and treated with derision. A civilization cannot long flourish when half of its people look down on the smart people “who think they’re better than us.” I’ll be writing about this later today.

But it is nice to look back on a time when the power elite of the world weren’t quite so evil and parochial as we are here in the United States. I often wonder: would we be worse off with crazy King George III or with Jeb Bush (not to mention the others)? It probably would be the same. It doesn’t matter if a leader is insane or he simply thinks he must pretend to be to maintain power to do what he sees as his most important work: taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

Happy anniversary Royal Greenwich Observatory!

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There Is Nothing to Wake Up to

Waking Up - Sam HarrisThis is the third article I’ve written about Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up. The subtitle of the book is, “A guide to spirituality without religion.” And that’s something I’m really interested in. One of the big problems of the modern atheist movement is that it is populated by reductionists. That in itself is not necessarily a problem — I too am a reductionist. But they tend to use it as an excuse to be really boring. And Sam Harris — who I have many problems with — has shown himself to be admirably open minded about the kinds of ontological questions that fascinate me, which have caused so many atheists to label me an agnostic.

Harris’ main concern in the book is the nature of consciousness. Although this isn’t my main issue, I’m really interested in it. And the parts of the book that deal with this issue are well worth the price of admission. But the rest of the book is largely a muddle. Much of the time, it reads like a memoir. The rest of the time, it reads like a self-help manual on meditation. That’s all fine, but I’m not really very interested in getting life lessons from Sam Harris. But if these parts of the book lead to even a few New Atheists not being quite so boring and closed minded, then it is a good thing that the book was published.

The curious thing about the parts of the book that matter to me is how Harris and I seem to completely disagree. Harris believes that the riddle of consciousness may never be figured out. Unfortunately, he isn’t terribly clear about this aspect of his discussion. He just takes it as a given that consciousness is something other than a mechanistic process. I share his awe that consciousness seems to be this thing that sits on top of the brain rather inside it. But I don’t see the problem.

I realize that it is very unhip to analogize the human brain to a computer. But I think I approach it from a higher level than it usual is, so forgive me. A computer is not a CPU. The CPU is simply what brings most of it all together. Instructions come from it. But it is rare that a computer will, for example, push a character onto a text screen directly by putting it there. Instead, it will talk to the BIOS and tell it to display the character. The CPU doesn’t have to worry about how it gets done. Similarly, if I want to scratch my nose, I just decide to do it and the details are worked out for me.

But I am not suggesting that consciousness is the CPU in this analogy. Consciousness, instead, would be the software that is running on the CPU. And it does rest in some netherworld that isn’t the brain but which most definitely exists because of the brain. And this leads to a subject that Harris never even touches on: that consciousness could just be an evolutionary trick — something that helps us survive but isn’t “real” in the sense that our bodies are real.

Let me step into Neuromancer for a moment. In it, Dixie Flatline’s consciousness has been stored in cyberspace. When it is reactivated, it disappoints him to learn that the person he thinks he is is dead. But the computer program that he now is seems to exist without a will. So he asks that the program be deleted after the job is done, because he doesn’t like existing in this state. This, of course, goes right along with Schopenhauer’s thought. According to him, the only reason we continue to live is because of the will pushing us on. It is irrational.

And that’s where I’m left. I have a very hard time believing that my consciousness is anything other than a mechanical construct. It is a matter of faith, of course — something that most New Atheists are blissfully ignorant of in their own lives. But I see no reason to believe that science will not one day show that what it is to be “me” is not something that I will find by drilling down one level. Ultimately, we drill down far enough and we get to the level of the cell. But there is no there there — or at least no end point. I’m all for meditation. But it isn’t how we will find our true selves, because there is no such thing.

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Looking on the Bright Side as a Tool for Happiness

Sam HarrisAs I was working to finish this book, we experienced a series of plumbing leaks in our house. The first appeared in the ceiling of a storage room. We considered ourselves genuinely lucky to have found it, because this was a room that we might have gone months without entering. A plumber arrived within a few hours, cut the drywall, and fixed the leak. A plasterer came the next day, repaired the ceiling, and painted it. This sort of thing happens eventually in every home, I told myself, and my prevailing feeling was of gratitude. Civilization is a wonderful thing.

Then a similar leak appeared in an adjacent room a few days later. Contact information for both the plumber and the plasterer was at my fingertips. Now I felt only annoyance and foreboding.

A month later, the horror movie began in earnest: a pipe burst, flooding six hundred square feet of ceiling. This time the repair took weeks and created an immense amount of dust; two cleaning crews were required to deal with the aftermath — vacuuming hundreds of books, drying, and shampooing the carpet, and so forth. Throughout all this we were forced to live without heat, for otherwise the dust from the repair would have been sucked into the vents, and we would have been breathing it in every room of the house. Eventually, however, the problem was fixed. We would have no more leaks.

And then, last night, scarcely one month after the previous repair, we heard the familiar sound of water falling onto carpet. The moment I heard the first drops, I was transformed into a hapless, uncomprehending, enraged man racing down a staircase, I’m sure I would have comported myself with greater dignity had I come upon the scene of a murder. A glance at the ballooning ceiling told me everything I needed to know about the weeks ahead: our home would be a construction site once again.

Of course, a house is a physical object beholden to the laws of nature — and it won’t fix itself. From the moment my wife and I grabbed buckets and salad bowls to catch the falling water, we were responding to the ineluctable tug of physical reality. But my suffering was entirely the product of my thoughts. Whatever the need of the moment, I had a choice: I could do what was required calmly, patiently, and attentively, or do it in a state of panic. Every moment of the day — indeed, every moment throughout one’s life — offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily.

We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels. We can use thoughts themselves as an antitdote, or we can stand free of thought altogether. The first technique requires no experience with meditation, and it can work wonders if one develops the appropriate habits of mind. Many people do it quire naturally: it’s called “looking on the bright side.”

For instance, as I was beginning to rage like King Lear in the storm, my wife suggested that we should be thankful that it was fresh water pouring through our ceiling and not sewage. I found the thought immediately arresting: I could feel in my bones how much better it was to be mopping up water at that moment than to be ankle deep in the alternative. What a relief! I often use thoughts of this kind as levers to pry my mind loose from whatever rut it has found on the landscape of unnecessary suffering. If I had been watching sewage spill through our ceiling, how much would I have paid merely to transform it into fresh water? A lot.

—Sam Harris
Waking Up


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More on Teleporters: It’s Murder!

TeleporterBack almost two years ago, I wrote an article, Using a Teleporter Is Suicide! It was about some scientists who had written a paper looking at the enormous amount of information that would have to be transmitted for a human body to be “transported” from one location to another. It turns out that it is enormous and so it is likely that teleportation would never be practical. As the title of my article suggests, I think this is all nonsense. All a transporter does is kill you and create a copy of you somewhere else. The fact that the resulting copy thinks that it is you hardly matters to the dead (nonexistent) you.

So I just read Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up. (I plan to write about it later today.) And in it, he discusses a transporter thought experiment by Derek Parfit. It comes to the same physical conclusion, but takes it in a very different direction. But I think this way of thinking about the basic case makes it crystal clear that anyone who decided to use a transporter would be insane:

[I]magine a teleportation device that can beam a person from Earth to Mars. Rather than travel for many months on a spaceship, you need only enter a small chamber close to home and push a green button, and all the information in your brain and body will be sent to a similar station on Mars, where you will be reassembled down to the last atom.

Image that several of your friends have already traveled to Mars this way and seem none the worse for it. They describe the experience as being one of instantaneous relocation. You push the green button and find yourself standing on Mars — where your most recent memory is of pushing the green button on Earth and wondering if anything would happen.

So you decide to travel to Mars yourself. However, in the process of arranging your trip, you learn a troubling fact about the mechanics of teleportation: it turns out that the technicians wait for a person’s replica to be built on Mars before obliterating his original body on Earth. This has the benefit of leaving nothing to chance; if something goes wrong in the replication process, no harm has been done. However, it raises the following concern: while your double is beginning his day on Mars with all your memories, goals, and prejudices intact, you will be standing in the teleportation chamber on Earth, just staring at the green button. Imagine a voice coming over the intercom to congratulate you for arriving safely at your destination; in a few moments, you are told, your Earth body will be smashed to atoms. How would this be any different from simply being killed?

Shockingly, for Parfit and Harris, it is different. And their reason for thinking so is akin to my reason for suggesting that it might not matter, “There is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next.” I put it differently. I suggested that perhaps on a quantum time level, we are constantly being replaced. But that is a rather different — and highly speculative — idea. What I think is far more likely is that the continuity of our cells (atoms) is what matters.

Again: the body on Mars is a copy. Let’s suppose that the original version of you were then killed by being burned alive. Would that not have happened just because there was another copy of you happily terraforming Mars? Or what if the original copy of you wasn’t destroyed? Is that Martian who thinks he’s you really you? I think we can argue that she is. But what we can’t argue is that the person who pushed the green button isn’t also you. And we certainly can’t argue that the person in the example above wasn’t being killed.

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We Have Not Been Doing Enough for the Poor

David BrooksOne of the best articles I ever wrote was, I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid. In it, I discussed how my parents owned a 7-11 when I was a kid. There were lots of people who lived near by and they spent food stamps to pay for stuff. That helped them, and that was great. But the truth of the matter is that those food stamps helped everyone — most especially my family. I estimated that 5% of the store’s gross income came from food stamps — probably more than our entire margin. It is a sad thing that people like me tend to look down on poor people who are dependent upon SNAP benefits, even while they help us as much if not more.

On Friday, David Brooks wrote, The Nature of Poverty. As the totally clueless commentator that he is, he thinks he has a big ol’ scoop. You see, silly people like Jon Stewart complain that we aren’t doing enough about poverty in this country. But Brooks has some news for you, “Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded… in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person.” If we just gave that money to poor families, they would be middle class!

It should come as no surprise that Brooks concluded his column, “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” That’s because it isn’t his conclusion. This is his unspoken postulate mascaraing as a conclusion. Where have we heard this sort of thing before, “Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted.” Oh, that’s right: the last time David Brooks “tackled” the issue. It’s always about social dysfunction among the poor — the causation never goes the other way. Why would it? The whole point is to tax the rich as little as possible and to tell the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But as Dean Baker was quick to point out, Brooks’ statistic was nonsense, David Brooks and the Federal Government’s $14,000 Per Year Per Poor Person. A shocking 40% of it is in the form of Medicaid. That is money that doesn’t go to the poor but rather “directly to doctors and other health care providers.” It is true that the poor get medical care, but the cost is so high because doctors make twice in America what they make in the rest of the advanced world.

So this is a situation like mine growing up in a 7-11 store. What we have here is welfare for the well off that people like David Brooks pretends is done for the poor. To him, somehow doctors’ salaries would go down if only poor children did better on the marshmallow challenge. This is just a way for rich people to justify doing nothing while pretending to care.

As for the other 60%, well, it isn’t as Brooks claimed either. That total $14,000 claim is based upon taking all of the money that we spend on programs for lower income people, and then dividing it by the much smaller number of people below the poverty line. So they don’t actually get that much money. As Baker noted, we are a stingy society, “The average family of three on TANF gets less than $500 a month. The average food stamp benefit is $133 per person.”

Paul Krugman later pointed out that the funding for these programs have all basically been flat — except for Medicaid, and it has only been going up because healthcare costs are going up, not the amount of service. He provided this helpful graph:

Non-growth of Welfare State

So people like Jon Stewart are right. And David Brooks is just a jerk.


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Morning Music: Worst Pies in London

Sweeney ToddI don’t quite know why it came into my mind, but I was talking to a friend about the song “Worst Pies in London” from the filmed version of Sweeney Todd. On stage, it is nothing special: just a pretty and amusing song. In the film, it is something quite different: an interesting contrast between the beauty of the song and the reality of mid-19th century London. The pie filling looks like it is something dredged from the sewer; cockroaches the size of mice are everywhere; and the actual pie seems to have mold on it. “It tastes like pity?” I think that is a decidedly optimistic appraisal.

Regardless, I love the song. I love the movie. It is extremely rare that a Broadway musical is brought to the screen so successfully. I can only think of two films off hand: West Side Story and Cabaret. Just the same, I can rarely get myself to watch Sweeney Todd. I admire it, but it is hard to take. It has a lot of great moments, however. And this is definitely one of them.

See Also

We All Deserve to Die
The Nice Side of All Deserving to Die

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Anniversary Post: State Sales Taxes

Sales TaxIt is very possible that on this day in 1921, West Virginia enacted the first broad sales tax. Do you know who loves the sales tax? The rich. I’m sure that the push to get sales taxes all over the United States was the result of the federal income tax enacted in 1913 via the Sixteenth Amendment. The federal income tax remains the only truly progressive tax in the United States. And the sales tax is regressive. This is why conservatives always go on about the federal income tax. They are just fine with the state sales taxes. In fact, many of them want to get rid of the federal income tax and replace it with a value added tax — basically a federal sales tax.

I should be clear, however. West Virginia legislated the sales tax at that time. But it apparently took the state forever to actually getting it working. That great bastion of liberty and supporter of the “common man,” Mississippi was the first state to actually get it going — in 1930, just when the common man could least afford it.

Here in the United States, we have a taxing system that is a mess. It is designed so as to take the maximum amount from the poor, but not make it look like this is what is happening. So everyone focuses on 15 April — the one day when our only progressive tax is collected. But every day — Every minute! — the poor and middle classes are being regressively taxed. But that’s just fairness. Unlike that terrible federal income tax, which is downright un-American!

Happy anniversary to the first broad-based sales tax — the beginning of a terrible American tradition.


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Odds and Ends Vol 15 — Cool Images Edition

Odds and EndsThis is a special edition of our Odds and Ends posts. I’ve been collecting random images from the internet. I’ve been wanting to do something with them, but I haven’t found a use. And they are sitting around in the place I put temporary images before uploading them to Frankly Curious. So they are just in the way. And if I find a permanent place to store them, they are as gone as if I had just deleted them. But they are pretty good. I’ll do my best to provide context.

Nixon: Prince of the Deep

First up is an image from The Daily Show in a segment called, Start Wars — a pun on Star Wars. It is about the Iran nuclear deal, noting the hypocrisy of Republicans in wanting to control the president regarding treaties but not wars. One of those treaties is the Law of the Sea Treaty. James Inhofe said that it would make us relinquish sovereignty of “70% of the world.” Jon Stewart responded, “As you know, America currently owns the oceans ever since President Nixon blew on Neptune’s fabled conch shell and became Prince of the Deep.” That went along with the following wonderful image:

Nixon as Neptune

Bigotry Buddies

Next we have two images from The Nightly Show. The first is from a bit on Ferguson Police Bias. During it, Larry Wilmore joked about a television series featuring George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson called, “Bigotry Buddies.” I’d watch it:

Bigotry Buddies

Blacks Do the Darndest Things!

The second is from Tuesday night’s excellent show on the Baltimore situation, What a Riot. A Fox News commentator said, “We got two stores right now, this guy’s walking out with a Colt 45 poster and then he’s burning it but you certainly got a lot of free liquor there that’s going on in the five finger discount here.” Wilmore responded that the clip was from the new show, “Blacks Do the Darndest Things!”

Blacks Do the Darndest Things!

Mystery Insect

This next one comes from a great photographer I follow on Google+, Robert Langdon. He is out of Florida, and does these amazing backlit shots. I don’t know that much about photography — just enough to be really impressed by his work. One day recently, he posted the following unidentified insect. But even more than the identity of this little charmer, is what that silver ball is underneath her. If you all have any thoughts, let me know.

Mysterious Insect by Robert Langdon

You can also check out Robert Langdon at Fine Art America.

Hipster Flintstones

And finally, we have have something that came to me from someone I follow on Google+, but I don’t remember who it is. But it is everywhere on the internet. Still, I thought it was pretty good. It is also self-explanatory. But I will note one thing: there is nothing to indicate Jesus in this image. Perhaps they are just celebrating the winter solstice?

Hipster Flintstones

That’s all for now kiddos. But we’ll be back later with another loose collection of things whenever it seems appropriate.


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The True Western Religion

Glenn GreenwaldIt was redolent of how NBC News immediately organized a panel to trash its own host, Chris Hayes, after Hayes grievously sinned against this religion simply by pondering, on Memorial Day, whether all American soldiers are “heroes” (a controversy that died only after he offered some public penance). The church in which Americans worship this religion are public events such as football games, where fighter jets display their divinity as the congregation prays.

This is the religion — of militarism and tribalism — that is the one thriving and pervasive in the west. The vast, vast majority of political discourse about foreign policy — especially from US and British media commentators — consists of little more than various declarations of tribal superiority: we are better and our violence is thus justified. The widespread desperation on the part of so many to believe that Muslims are uniquely violent, primitive and threatening is nothing more than an affirmation of this religious-like tribalism. And nothing guarantees quicker and more aggressive excommunication than questioning of this central dogma.

—Glenn Greenwald
Cowardly Firing of Australian State-Funded TV Journalist Highlights the West’s Real Religion

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Ginger Baker Is a Very Typical Jerk

Beware of Mr BakerI just watched the documentary about iconic drummer Ginger Baker, Beware of Mr Baker. It is quite good, but I don’t mean to talk about the movie here. I want to discuss Baker himself. You see, he really is a vile man. And if you eliminate his amazing musical abilities, he is just like countless men that I’ve known. It’s a curious thing. There is a mixture of narcissism and hopelessness that don’t seem to go together. He clearly thinks that the most wonderful and perfect thing is himself. But that hasn’t made him happy. So he blames the rest of the world.

There is a telling moment toward the end of the film. Baker is, bizarrely, into polo. As a result, he owns about thirty horse. He has to, because apparently, no one will allow him in their polo clubs because, as I said, he’s a vile person. While petting one of his horses, he says, “Horses don’t let you down. Nor do dogs. They all know who I am.” Who is he? I assume he means the center of the universe. This is coming from a man who is known in the music business as one of the very greatest drummers, but someone who no one wants to work with because he’s so unpleasant. He is estranged from his children. Even his current wife seems to have glommed onto him as the best of bad options.

If I hadn’t know so many men who are like this, I might think this is all a function of Baker’s musical brilliance. But it isn’t. Most men who behave as he does don’t have anything particularly impressive to offer to the world. So I’m sure that if Baker had simply become a coal miner, he would be exactly the same. So it’s hard for me to consider him just a lovable rogue. He’s very unlovable. But people are more willing to give him a pass because of his past accomplishments. Obviously, I’m not.

Another moment, just about a minute after Baker’s comment about horses and dogs, the filmmaker, Jay Bulger, asked him if he thought about going back into music. This is following Baker’s never ending complaints about being broke. Bulger tells him that he may be forced to if his ranch is going to be foreclosed on. And he adds, “Besides, it’s who you are.” And Baker, ever the charmer, spits back, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, why are we talking about this shit?!” I get it: Baker is unhappy. But this is just bully nonsense.

During the credits, Bulger runs through various clips of Baker insulting him. In some cases, it is clear that he’s half joking. But mostly, he’s just angry because he isn’t being asked the right questions and given the right respect. But there is no joking at all when Baker slams his cane into the nose of Bulger. The the reason he does this is incredible. Baker doesn’t want him to interview people that Baker has left behind “on my film.” His film. His life. His world. But Bulger’s ultimate reaction to this is part of the problem, “I realized: the madman is alive and well!”

But not really. In that sentence, “madman” is a euphemism for what the Frankly Curious style dictates I call a “jerk” but would prefer to call something more colorful and forceful. And more important, Baker may be alive, but he is not well. He is miserable. And he is one of countless men who deal with their unhappiness about the fact that the world does not worship them by making everyone pay. As a James Thurber cartoon I once saw said, “You’re disappointed? We’re all disappointed!” Most of us manage to get through life without making everyone else more miserable than they already are.


Filed under Film, TV & Theater, Social

Judith Miller Hasn’t Learned a Thing

Judith MillerIn general, Judith Miller’s book tour has been really upsetting. It isn’t that I blame her for the Iraq War. But she was at a bare minimum a useful fool of the Bush administration that was determined to go to war with Iraq. Yet here she is with her new book, The Story. And every time I see her, she is making the same reasonable sounding, but wrong, claims that it wasn’t her — it was the flawed intelligence. If pushed, she will admit that, sure, it wasn’t the intelligence as such, but rather the intelligence filtered through the White House that was wrong. But then she will follow it up with something to the effect that all the reporters got it wrong — except Knight Ridder. But even that heads back at her, because eventually even they assumed they were wrong because, well, look at what The New York Times was reporting!

So normally, I wouldn’t have watched Jon Stewart’s interview with her on The Daily Show. But I heard that he really went after her. And he did indeed. But the truth is that Judith Miller is very good at deflecting criticism. And she is just going to sit there, smile, and repeat her mantra, “I was just reporting what I thought was true; all the other reporters were doing it.” It’s just shameful. And Stewart’s conclusion was appropriate:

We’re obviously never going to see eye-to-eye on it. I appreciate you coming on the program. These discussions always make me incredibly sad because I feel like they point to institutional failure at the highest levels and no one will take responsibility for it, and they pass the buck to every individual but themselves. It’s sad.

But the main thing was the total disgust that was on his face. Miller, of course, smiled through it all. She is, after all, not just selling a book; she’s selling herself. But the best that Stewart could manage was a very tight, clearly angry, forced smirk. I was glad to see it. He clearly feels the way I do.

I want to be clear about what this feeling is. I have no wish to see Judith Miller harassed and belittled for the rest of her life. People make mistakes. For some, it is small and maybe all it does it ruin their lives. But some make mistakes on a grand scale. Miller is such a person. Now I fully appreciate that if Cheney and company didn’t have access to her, they would have found someone else. But they did have her, and it isn’t asking so much for her to admit that she did a bad job.

Ultimately, the problem is with the media system itself. Judith Miller has presented herself — and continues to — as a neutral observer. She’s just reporting the facts as she finds them. But as The Daily Show interview shows, this isn’t the case. She actually did have an ax to grind. I don’t doubt that she was unaware of it. But she appears to be so focused on exonerating herself that she is still unaware of her biases. If she were honest and admitted that, yes in fact, she wanted to believe the nonsense that the White House was dishing, then it would all be over. I would accept that she — very much like myself — is imperfect. But the Judith Miller going all over the nation pimping her book? She hasn’t learned a thing.


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Morning Music: Blind Faith

Blind FaithI’ll be writing about Ginger Baker later today, but it made me think about a lot of the great music that he was involved in. The Steve Winwood song “Can’t Find My Way Home” of the original Blind Faith album really sticks out to me. It works very well as Baker’s lament about not being able to find the key to happiness and thinking it is just one person or thing away.

Here is the band at its premiere concert in Hyde Park, London. They really are an amazing band. And Baker’s work on the drums is stunning. But as you will see later today, I still think he’s an awful human being who is not at all redeemed by his music.

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