My own thoughts--for me.
(. . . OK, you can look.)

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Cover Guys 

Presidential politics is a beauty contest, in more ways than one. I'm not thinking of how much focus groups like a thick head of hair. I'm thinking about John Maynard Keynes famous remark about the stock market: "Speculation is like being a judge in a beauty contest where the objective is not to pick the prettiest girl, but the girl the other judges pick." Funny and important about stock markets, it's not generally applicable to politics. We each have an interest in affecting the outcome in our direction, less on guessing what will win. On the other hand, in primary elections such as those in the U.S., there is a bit of the Keynes beauty contest too.

Suppose, hypothetically, that I would much rather have any of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination become president than George W. Bush being reelected. I can best promote that result by promoting the chances of whichever Democratic seems to me likely to seem loveliest to the voters in the general election. And to do that I would need to put aside my own preferences (once I had settled on preferring all Democrats to Bush) and concentrate on the preferences of other people: Which of these Democrats is most likely to win against Bush? Suddenly, even if, hypothetically, I am strongly against our involvement in Iraq, Kerry and Clark talking tough suits my purposes. Even if I am against the increased role of religion in public discourse, suddenly Lieberman's moderate Bible thumping is an advantage. In fact, if the general election seemed likely to favor a little racism, then I would best promote the Dems victory by promoting a candidate with the effective amount of racism. OK, now you're scaring me.

This raises a few questions in my mind. One is whether it is always permissible to vote in whatever way will best promote your candidate (even assuming there is nothing wrong with your candidate). One example I like here is the case where I could legally vote in the primary of the party I oppose, in which case my own party's interests are best served if I do my best to get the nomination for a candidate my party can beat in the general election. Call me puritanical, but I think this is unethical, even if it violates no institutional or legal rules. If so, there are cases where promoting the best political outcome (philosophers: I mean best in the agent-neutral sense) is nevertheless wrong. And then it's not at all obvious that the beauty contest approach to the primary is ethical, even if it is the most effective way to oppose Bush. I'm not sure, but it's not obvious.

Another question about the beauty contest approach is whether we, the voters, have any real competence on the question of what is likely to succeed in the general election This is a very different question from the question of which candidate is likely to be the best president. I'm not saying that we voters are really very good at either of those questions (I'm avoiding that issue), but the difference between those two questions still seems to me to be important in thinking about how people ought to use their votes.

My family and I recently played a game in an art museum. In each room we take some time to look around, then gather in the center. On the count of three we each point to the painting we expect to be the most popular amongst us. Then, again on the count of three, we each point to our own favorite. (This is a great game, slightly modified from one my sister's family plays. It stimulates better thought and conversation about the art, at least in a group with ages ranging from 10 to 45, then you're otherwise likely to get.) The game is relevant here for at least this observation: we were all terrible at guessing what would be the most popular. Good thing nothing much hung on our predictions. For example, our errors weren't responsible for eliminating the best work from consideration for no good reason. Can we say the same for the beauty contest approach to voting in primaries?

Monday, January 19, 2004

Station to Station 

It's often said that there's no substitute for face-to-face communication. It depends on what you mean by substitute. If it means that face-to-face has certain advantages over communication at a distance, such as telephone, letters, instant message, or email, then I'm sure it's true. It's not that easy to say what the advantages are, but one would be the ability to see the other person's face. OK, what about online communication in real time with both parties on a live video cam? Now it's even harder to say what the advantages are of face-to-face, but still I'm sure there are some. Even so, there are disadvantages, so if the claim that there's no substitute means that face-to-face is better in every way, it's not right.

Traditional forms of distance communication, such as letter writing and telephone, show us some of the advantages, and I wonder if people don't pay enough attention to these in thinking about the growth of new computer-based kinds of distance communication. Letters, which involve an extended expression by one party without any interaction or interruption until some time later, often encourage a kind of honesty, intimacy, and reflectiveness that would be unlikely face-to-face. Does this advantage carry over to email? I think the answer is mixed. Email is delivered immediately, and a reply could be on it's way at any time, possibly even before the first writer leaves the computer. This seems to change things. I suppose one thing it does is to make it feel less necessary to go on at length. You'll have an open line of email communication soon anyway. Email tends to be less substantial that paper letters in my experience, and this might be partly why. On the other hand, email is so fast and easy that it tends to be more frequent. We're writing each other a lot more than we did 20 years ago, without a doubt. And I think email retains enough of the advantages of letters for it to have some significant advantages over face-to-face communication. For example, I am more likely to be sincerely asked what's going on in my life in an email than in person (even supposing it's the same person who is or is not doing the asking).

Telephone is a form of distance communication, and it has advantages over face-to-face too, advantages which I think are familiar. I see an extreme example of this in my youngest (10 year old) daughter's addiction to the phone. She can talk and talk to her friends at a length and over a range of topics I don't see her accomplishing with them in person. And she's only 10, headed for a great telephone career as far as I can tell. The computer-based form that's most analogous to phone would by IM, or instant messaging. People converse by sharing a computer window in real time. Both of my daughters are doing a lot of this. It seems to me to retain the advantages of phone, and to add in some of the advantages of letter writing. It's hard to know how to compare it to face-to-face communication. Should we ask whether it has advantages over having the same people in the same room for the same period of time? That's a weird comparison, since the flow of time is so different. IM seems to continue seamlessly over long stretches of time, covering absences for dinner, etc. I don't know. (10 year old Hannah verifies that she has good IM conversations with some kids she was much more shy with in person.)

But add in the possibilities with cam, voice, IM, email, blogs, etc., and I think old-fashioned face-to-face communication is thin and clumsy in certain ways. Of course, it is preferable in some ways too. But the new forms are adding a lot. Not just the greater volume of communication that is allowed by the ease and speed of these new forms. Even apart from that, they are better in some ways. They are not a substitute for face-to-face. And face-to-face is not a substitute for them.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Bush v. Nader 

It was a mistake to vote for Ralph Nader in 2000. OK, I mean I made that mistake. A lot of democrats are pretty angry at Nader and his supporters. There's a lot of debate about whether they might have actually made the difference. I doubt it, but it's hard to say. I am interested, though, in whether it was a mistake only in retrospect. Did the people who counseled against voting for Nader really have a sound basis for that advice? The fact that Bush has turned out to be such a disaster does not address that question.

Political judgment depends on a lot of facts and experience, but people who are good at it also throw in a dose of intuition, like a good doctor might bring to bear on a unique set of symptoms. So when someone gets it right, one has to allow that maybe they really had a handle on the truth. But it is still fair to ask whether the reasons they gave were enough to justify their position.

In the case of Bush/Gore/Nader, I'm not at all sure the Gore people had a good enough reason for saying it was dangerous to vote for Nader, for two main reasons. The idea that the election might be close enough for Nader to be a spoiler was always fairly unlikely. Of course, some people predicted it. But some predicted it wouldn't happen. The fact of a prediction isn't enough. But I admit I never ruled that out. The second point is the more important one. People who said Bush would be a disaster compared to Gore did not, I think, have a strong basis for that. The Gore record was a centrist one, by which I mean one that nudged up to the line between Democrat and Republican. His ties to big oil and his relatively hawkish past made the choice between them less interesting. Alexander Cockburn's, "All Gore: A User's Guide" told this side of the story. (The pic links to a sympathetic review.)

It is an impossible question to answer, but I often wonder what Gore would have become in the aftermath of 9/11. The political imperatives that have pushed Bush's approval rating so high would have been about the same, and I'm guessing that he would have aimed at a second term. Plenty of things would have been different. The war in Iraq seems to have stemmed from a long-standing pre-911 hunger in the Bush team, so that debacle might not have happened. That's an enormous matter, of course, but it isn't anything that Democrats knew in 2000. In fact, the worst things about Bush and his administration were not, I believe generally predictable. His appointment of Ashcroft, his aggressive interventionism, his extreme ideological approach to taxes and government, were more or less surprises. This, to repeat, is not to say that nobody predicted them. People predicted all kinds of things, and some of them were bound to be right. That doesn't mean they had, or gave, good reasons for believing their predictions.

My point isn't to debate the merits of voting for Nader in their entirety. It is just to point out that the horrendous performance of George W. Bush was not foreseen, and so it is not available to support the charge that Nader and his supporters were out of touch with political reality; and to register some doubts about how ideal Gore would have been under the unforeseen circumstances that have surrounded the events of 9/11.

We would have been better off with Gore than Bush-- not as well off as many liberals seem to think, but far better than what Bush turned out, more or less surprisingly, to be.

Saturday, January 10, 2004


I'm not the most qualified person to reflect on what the point and value of blogs is, or could be. I've only posted 4 times so far. But my wife and I had an interesting discussion about it yesterday, and it's worth saying something about.

Some blogs require no explanation since they're so obviously useful to others. For example, Brian Weatherson's philosophy blog is widely read in the profession, since it's smart, and a useful source of information. There are political blogs that help organize opposition to George Bush, or to rally other causes. There are lots of patently useful blogs.

Then there are blogs on the other extreme (I'll tactfully refrain from linking any) that aren't worth defending, since they really are nothing but mindless self-indulgent rambling with no merit. These might well be a fun and useful exercise for their authors, so that's something, but it's not saying much. And there is everything in between. It's those in between that are worth thinking about. The two most common negative reactions to the idea of a blog are, first, that it is arrogant to set yourself up as some sort of pundit or columnist when no one has invited you to do so, and, second, it is vulgar to post your diary on a worldwide public medium.

I think the idea of a secret diary can strike a person as strange if they aren't already familiar with the idea. Who is the diarist writing to anyway? After a little thought, there's a lot that can be said for keeping a secret diary. You might record thoughts and experiences for your own future reference, or you might write simply to clarify your own thoughts and never read them again, and so on.

Blogs can seem arrogant or vulgar at first, but after a little thought there's a lot that can be said for them. Not all of them, but for the medium. The idea of a diary provides some useful analogies. Diaries are not always intended for oblivion. Sometimes the author expects them to become public. This isn't the most useful analogy since that can still seem arrogant or vulgar. But often a diary is neither expected to be public, nor expected to remain secret. The author might write as if someone might read it and find it worth reading, without any assumption that it deserves to be read or that it has some great intellectual or aesthetic merit.

My wife's grandmother kept a diary, in many volumes. There was no particular assumption that they were secret, and they didn't contain many private feelings or experiences, but thoughts of a more objective interest. Hardly anyone got to read them before they were thrown away after her death, but they might well have been written for whomever might happen to read them. I find that an excellent way to describe the modest value of the in-between blogs. They are written for whomever might happen to read them, whomever might be interested. Sometimes they are interesting, sometimes not, just like every other medium. I honestly find myself not caring if anyone reads my blog or not, but it stimulates my thinking to write as if it might be read, which is easier to do if it might be.

Anyway, time will settle this, and it will certainly prove that the medium of the blog has merit, though probably not this particular one. Here's a list of articles about blogging. Here's the Guardian's 2003 weblog awards. And the only interesting graphic I could find for this post links to an interesting article from Salon magazine about blogs.

Friday, January 09, 2004


Someday, and soon, every book will be easily available online. So far, though, a big bookstore is a much larger source of books than a computer. The story is different with music. There may be a few mega-stores stocking over 20,000 CD titles, but I doubt it. Yet, that is how many CD's are available immediately on the Rhapsody music service. This is not an ad for Rhapsody, but an ode to services like it that are emerging very quickly as the new way to get access to music.

I pay $9.95 a month, and in return it is as if I own every CD in a large CD store...only better. I sit comfortably on my couch, browse through a well-organized database and play anything I want. It plays on my stereo or my headphones and it sounds as good as the real CD.

This is easier than searching through a record store and getting the CD into the player. And while I'm listening I consult the convenient links to influences on the artist I'm listening to, or contemporaries, or followers, or read a short biography, or switch over to the web to learn more.

This service and others like it have been available for several years now, but most people I know are completely shocked when they find out about it from me. For some reason, MP3's have dominated music listeners' attention. They have some advantages, but some disadvantages. Let's just consider legally obtained MP3's, leaving aside the ethical questions and quality risks that come with the illegal kind. There are two advantages to MP3's. One is that MP3 files are portable. They can be put on a small player than fits in your pocket and they can be moved from one computer to another. The other advantage is that they can be listened to even when the user is not connected to the internet.

This second advantage continues to decrease in size, as wireless access become more available. I am connected to the internet very often: at home, at my office, at the cafe, in a hotel, and in surprising places where a wireless connection simply pops up on my laptop. This access to the net is growing fast so that soon laptop users will be able to be online most of their day, wherever they are. You can't be on your laptop while you're walking down the street or driving in the car, so a portable MP3 player is still useful in those situations. But those will change before long.

What are the advantages of the streaming method of delivery, such as Rhapsody. The main one is the huge quantity of music that is available on demand, with virtually no download time. Suppose you like Bob Dylan, and you have a large MP3 collection. I bet you don't have every cut from 45 albums by Dylan. Rhapsody does. Not 45 songs, 45 albums, just by Dylan. Click em and they play. People brag about their MP3 collections, but I have more music at my fingertips than any of them, and I didn't have to put hours into downloading and organizing my files and buying larger hard drives to hold them. My music all sits on Rhapsody's servers. If I want to have offline access to any of this music I can pay 79 cents per song and burn music to a CD that I can play anywhere. The cost is more than an illegal MP3, but not more than a legal one. Having a CD that you paid for might seem so 20th century, but on Rhapsody you can hear the whole CD as many times as you want before you decide to pay to burn it. This is the stuff of dreams just a few years ago.

One of the limitation that we have all noticed with the glut of information that the internet makes available is how hard it is to find your way around it to what you really value. I may have 20,000 albums on Rhapsody, but how would I know what is there or what to try listening to? There are tons of ways to discover its riches. One is by browsing what they have added to their library in the last week. You'll be amazed for one thing, but it will also put your mind on artists you weren't thinking about. On January 4, for example, they added stuff by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sting, Robert Palmer, Michael Jackson, Stan Getz, Stevie Wonder, Merle Haggard, Marilyn Mason, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, The Cranberries, LL Cool J, Jame Brown, Bob Marley, Boston, Carole King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, Nirvana, Seal, Roy Orbison, and tons more. That's just what was added on one day. Many of these are older artists, partly because newer artists are well-represented and they keep working on the backlist. You can browse the whole artist list here.

Here's another way to find new music on there. You can make what they call a "radio station" by selected one or several artist, and they will automatically stream and endless string of tunes by artists deemed similar or related. The other day I just set up a station with one artist: Natalie McMaster, a contemporary celtic artist. Got a wide variety of celtic music as if on a radio station, much of it very obscure, lots of it great, some of it terrible. On the terrible cuts, I just clicked "skip." Amazing. They also have a bunch of good pre-designed radio stations.

The key to taking advantage of Rhapsody, I think, is to have it wired to your good home stereo. I keep my laptop in the living room and plug it into the stereo whenever I'm home. The quality, on a pretty good stereo, is excellent. In my experience it's better than most MP3's, though it's sampled at the pretty standard rate of 128kbps. This is often called CD quality, which is not technically accurate, though I'm not sure I hear any difference from a CD.

What's interesting to me about it is this: I'll bet Rhapsody is pretty close to what many music lovers wish they had and dream of having someday, and they don't know it exists. Hardly anybody knows. But you do.

Saturday, January 03, 2004


I'm listening to some bluegrass music on the internet music service Rhapsody. These are two interesting topic. Bluegrass first. Rhapsody some other time.

When you love a kind of music you get used to the pain of encountering people who don't see your beloved in the same light. There's no music that everyone likes, so we get used to having some lonely tastes. But among the people I know, which is not an overly narrow slice of American society even if it is far from a random sample, my taste for bluegrass music is especially lonely. This is not just because it is not equally beloved by others, but they go farther than that. They find it hard to believe that anybody likes it. This raises some questions in my mind.

First, and foremost, what on earth is wrong with them? Or putting it more politely, what explains this strong difference of opinion? Two possibilities are, first, they are biased against the initial impression of the music, judging it guilty by association. One association with bluegrass music, of course, is Country and Western music, which is a much more sensible thing to dislike. Country music on pop radio stations is very glitzy and maudlin, with the hypocrisy of pretending to be down home. Some of it's fun, just as some of the pop top-40 is fun. But as genres, neither is worth deep devotion. So, I think some people hate bluegrass before they ever really listen because they know it's some kind of country music and they know they don't like country music.

But the thing about bluegrass music is that it is relatively free of the main vices of radio-style country music. First, it is not slick and glitzy. It is played on traditional acoustic instruments with jaw dropping virtuosity and heart, and sung with simple and straightforward feeling. So, second, it is not pretending to be down home. It IS down home.

A genuine folk music always runs the risk of seeming too simple for urbane tastes. But there is no shortage of enthusiasm for the blues these days, or for Dylan. Or, in what I think is a good analogy, early jazz. Early jazz is simple in some ways, compared to the great harmonic and other innovations of later jazz, especially in the bebop years. But the style of Louis Armstrong, and the later jazz of the early Swing years has great virtues that many urbane sophisticates can still appreciate. Bluegrass, with it's genuine emotional roots, its unschooled sources, it's free flowing but dazzling musicianship, and often its distinctive compelling rhythmic drive, has plenty of resources to appeal to these listeners. Still, I think it often gets dismissed. Lovers of early jazz often share stories of how a particular group, or a particular performance, could "swing." Hard to translate if you haven't felt it, this refers to a kind of drive that a tune can accumulate that feels like it will sweep the listener away like a passing train. Listen: bluegrass has it.

The early interest in jazz was driven by a natural fascination with the segregated and insular ways of African American or Black society and culture. I don't mean that that interest was condescending or patronizing. It was just an extra draw, that kept people listening, and then they liked what they heard. There's no similar fascination with the disappearing but insular life and culture of people in the hills of Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, etc. Not being as badly oppressed (which is not to say there isn't great and unjust poverty in Appalachia) maybe bluegrass doesn't offer a way to make amends for previous wrongs the way the valorization of the treasures of Black culture does. I suppose movies like "Deliverance," despite the great music, hardly inspire sympathy for the mountain people.

I have a bit of this fascination, which might help explain why the music draws me in beyond the first country-sounding strains. I don't know where the interest stems from, though I have one idea. Music of a very homegrown sort was important in my family, and had a big influence on my views about what's valuable in music (all kinds of things including humble down home music). Some of the lovliest music I have heard in my life has been at unrehearsed social occasions with a few guitars and some people who know how to sing, though it has not usually been bluegrass music. My father and his siblings, who had sung professionally as teenagers, used to get the guitar and accordion out late at night when I was very young, and the spirit and the harmonies I heard when I was supposed to be sleeping sank very deep. Later I took up guitar, and aspired to nothing so much as my the ability of my father--who was renowned in the family and more widely for his singing--to accompany the willing singers of all ages (roughly 7 to 70 years old at one point) sitting around the living room. (I've got it now too.) I think I hear in Bluegrass music all that spirit and humility, along with musicianship to die for.

Still, even if you don't come by a taste for it psychoanalytically like me, I don't see why you wouldn't love Bluegrass if you give it a chance.

I admit, this rant is a bit late, since there is some new interest in Bluegrass after the movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" In case anyone actually stumbles on to this and reads it, I should provide some references to music to try. But, to keep it simple, the CD from that movie is an excellent place to start, including a variety of styles, some real originators, and some innovators too. If you like anything there, you can easily follow it up. Here's another idea. Go to Amazon to this record by Dan Tyminski, and scroll down to where there's a button "Listen to All." Clicking there brings up a very cool sampler with 30 second cuts, and a string of similar albums you can choose to listen from as well. For a third listening idea, click on the pic above of the banjo duo (or here). The ensuing site streams songs like a radio station. The audio quality isn't great, but the tunes are.

If you can get to an outdoor concert at a bluegrass festival where visitors can camp, make sure to wander around the camper-trailer portion of the parking lot around 11pm. Too much.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Live Music 

When I was in NY for Christmas I had a free night to go out and hear jazz by myself. Instead of returning to a club I love, Smoke, I was seduced by the big names. John Abercrombie and Larry Coryell, legendary avant garde guitarists I've known about for years, were playing in a trio with a third person, female guitarist, vocalist, and body percussionist, Badi Assad. The club is called Jazz Standard. The two men are well-known for their work over the years exploring atmospheric and modal approaches to guitar jazz, sort of like Keith Jarrett's piano before his recent return to standards. I don't know why I went, since I've never really been moved by either of their styles. In the guitar trio format the effect was really very boring.

There were two bright spots. Assad's free and fun approach to sound--slapping, humming, whistling, in the rich spirit of her Brazilian roots--has to make you smile. Partly because it's a little bit funny, but mostly because it's just fun. The other bright spot was one mostly solo piece by Abercrombie called "Falling Grace." I haven't found out if this piece is on a record but I will get it if I can. There's a haunting presence of early blues or ragtime guitar moaning through his own cutting edge innovative style. The references are so direct I wish I'd asked him if the piece is, in some sense, about those comparisons. I have to say the club was disappointing too. There was less than an hour of music, and then time for an hour break before the next set. If the next set sells out, then everyone is evacuated. I've never been to a club like that before and it didn't seem like the most fun way to spend the $25 cover charge. I wish I'd gone to Smoke.

Thursday, January 01, 2004


I live in Seekonk, MA with my family, and teach philosophy at Brown University. There a number of philosophy blogs, and I don't intend this to be another one. But philosophy is one of my interests, and I plan to post ideas on several of my interests. Time will tell, but I expect to post about bicycling, guitar, music, art, movies, philosophy, politics, and other things. I wish these could be grouped into categories, and maybe they can, but I don't know how yet. So I'll begin with the classic chronological blog.

I saw two art exhibits in the last few days (more than my regular rate, by far). The most stunning one was the John Currin show at the Whitney in NY. A Google image search would turn up more images than those two links contain. The work is an unsettling blending of virtuosic painting and composition skills in a traditional style, with ironic, cynical, bemused, commentary on mass culture. Political art is often boring and static, but I didn't find it that way at all. It doesn't send any simple message, but whatever the message is it seems to me to be true.

The other exhibit was the Romare Bearden show at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. His collage images are familiar from many jazz posters, but the work is a lot broader. The link to jazz is played up in the audio tour, and I think it cramps the appreciation of his work somewhat. Seeing the pieces in person I was especially impressed by the color and composition, leaving the content aside.

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