Vote – Midterm Primary Edition

In Connecticut, where I think most of my readers are, the primaries are this Tuesday. Every time an election is coming up, I like to remind everyone to vote. I know that’s a tall order for a midterm primary, but I want to urge every eligible voter to go out this Tuesday and vote.

The nice thing about primaries is that they are about the only time that average citizens can move the major parties. Left leaning Democrats often complain that the Democrats in office are too conservative and right leaning Republicans complain the Republicans in office are too liberal. Primaries are the time to change that. Look at how far left Bernie Sanders moved the mainstream Democrats, we’ve seen socialists elected in other primaries, and look at how far fascist Trump pulled the mainstream Republicans, we have the government declaring that the press is the enemy. If you’re a Democrat that wants to keep the party moving left, now’s your chance. And if you’re a Republican that wants to pull away from fascism, now is also your chance.

When I write these posts, I don’t usually say who I think people should vote for. I just want people to vote. I’m still not going to say who to vote for, but I do want to make a plea to all of the Democrats in Connecticut. Please, please, please, please do not vote for Ganim. We’re not that far away from having a felon kicked out of the governor’s office with Rowland. The last thing we want is to elect another known felon to the same position. The farther away we keep Ganim, the better.

So, that’s it. Tuesday, primary day, is almost here. Go out and vote. You can make a difference.

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A Problem With Describing the Way a Person Looks

I’m having a problem with the modern English language. I’m working on a story. The characters in the story are seeing a Shemekia Copeland show. I gave the story out to some people for feedback and learned two things. First, no one I showed the story to knew who Shemekia Copeland was. That makes me sad. She’s really great. Everyone ought to check out her music. Second, I need more physical descriptions in the story. People told me they were having trouble picturing the scene.

I have since added some descriptions of the club where they saw the show, but I feel like I also need to add a description of Shemekia Copeland. This is where my problem comes from. I typically do not describe my characters’ physical appearance. This is so the readers can use their imaginations and fill in some details. If there’s an average guy, I want the reader to imagine whatever they think an average guy is. Same if there’s a pretty girl or a cute baby. I don’t want to impose my tastes on my readers. The exception to that is if there is a physical characteristic of one of the characters that matters for the story. As a result, I’m not really comfortable describing a person’s appearance. And that’s doubly true when I have to describe a woman. I become very aware that I’m not a woman and I’m terrified of writing something sexist.

This is where the English language fails me. Shemekia Copeland is a very attractive woman. But that’s not much of a description. It makes the point that I, or the main character, find her attractive. It says almost nothing about the way she looks. And, calling her attractive with no other description would be misleading because she doesn’t look like what is typically presented as attractive. She doesn’t look like a typical magazine cover model at all. There just aren’t really good words for an atypical beauty.

A lot of the words out there either sound like euphemisms for fat or they are focused almost entirely on a woman’s bosom. I’m thinking of words like curvy, full-figured, shapely, voluptuous, buxom, and other similar words. Voluptuous is probably the best of those, but when was the last time you heard someone say voluptuous to mean voluptuous? It’s either used as a nicer way of saying that someone is overweight or that someone has big boobs. Neither is what I’m trying to say.

With all the words that can be used to describe a woman who isn’t skinny, there’s implied judgement attached. The best I can come up with is something that says, “She’s attractive even though she’s not skinny.” I don’t like that “even though.” I want something that says that she’s attractive period. Something that doesn’t imply skinny at the same time.

There is a Yiddish word, zaftig, that kind of fits the bill. At least it doesn’t have the implied judgement built in. But I feel weird throwing in one Yiddish word. It doesn’t fit with the vocabulary throughout the rest of the story. Plus, I don’t think it’s a familiar enough word. If I send people to their dictionaries while reading my story, I feel like I’ve messed up.

I’m still undecided what I’m going to do. There are two reason Shemekia Copeland is even in the story, and neither has to do with the way she looks. One is that the real event that sparked the story was a Shemekia Copeland show that I saw with a couple friends, so it just feels natural using that as a setting. The other is that I want to get the point across that these characters are big music fans. They’re not going to see the latest pop star and they’re not going to see a legend. They’re seeing someone contemporary, who is good at what she does and isn’t a household name (Although she should be a household name.). I’m leaning towards dropping the physical description. But I’m going to struggle with it a little more and see what happens.

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A Quick Recap

We’ve come to the end of July. At the beginning of the month, Jamil and I announced our intent to each make a post a day for the month. We didn’t. We did post a total of 34 times, which isn’t horrible, but it isn’t what we hoped. It turns out that July is kind of a crazy month, or at least this July was.

There are a couple of takeaways. It was a fun challenge. Even though we failed, it’s something we might like to try again. And we’ll try to do better the next time. We also learned that we’re not really good at hot takes. In a sense that’s too bad, we could have hit our goal easily with a series of hot takes. But in a better sense, it’s good because neither of us like hot takes.

I guess that’s it. We hope you had a good July, and bonus if any of our posts made the month a little better for you.

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What Good Is Freedom?

In the United States (and beyond), freedom is often treated as a foundational good. The Declaration of Independence puts it right there with life and happiness in the form of liberty. New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die.” We are known as, “The land of the free.” And it is one of the few things that is celebrated by both the left and the right. But are we right to celebrate freedom the way we do?

I feel like I should start with the obvious. Freedom doesn’t mean just one thing. Rather than list every type of freedom, it’s easier to split them into two types: positive freedom and negative freedom. Positive freedom is the freedom to do something. Negative freedom is freedom from something. Freedom of speech is a positive freedom, you are free to speak. Freedom from illegal search and seizures is a negative freedom. It doesn’t allow you to do anything, it prevents the government from doing something to you. Liberals tend to favor positive freedoms and conservatives negative freedoms, but that’s just a general observation. There are plenty of exceptions.

My second point ought to be just as obvious as my first. Freedom, whichever kind, can’t be a foundational good. There are just too many other goods that would win in a trade. Would you trade your life for freedom? What about happiness for freedom? Contentment? Security? Justice? No one would choose a one for one swap to get freedom for any of those things (Well, the wicked might choose freedom over justice, but being wicked, they aren’t good guides to behavior.). What would be the point of freedom for a dead person? What good would freedom be if it made us perpetually unhappy? Clearly freedom is a contingent good, it gains whatever good it has from something else.

If my two points are correct, it means that Freedom can’t be judged on its own. We need to look at the particular instance of freedom and which good it’s using to determine its worth. Some, like freedom of speech, wind up looking very good. Freedom of speech gives us happiness, justice and security. But even freedom of speech isn’t an unqualified good. We need to protect people from slander and libel and putting others in dangerous situations. This particular freedom needs limits to be good. Other freedoms, like freedom of information, are even more of a mixed bag. It sounds nice. It can help keep the government accountable, but there are certain things that should be kept secret, like the D-Day plans. There’s also a big difference between public information and private information. If it were all free, it would lead to many injustices. So freedom of information needs a lot of restrictions to be good.

Since even the best freedoms are only good with limitations, any system, like libertarianism, that is based on Freedom is going to have major problems. The fact that freedom’s value is constantly in flux depending on context makes it a lousy base for anything. Freedom needs the more fundamental goods. Without them, freedom is nothing to brag about.

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Why Socialism?

Socialism is all the rage on the left side of the political spectrum. With Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s recent primary win and Bernie Sanders’ surprising primary challenge in 2016, the socialists are now the coolest cats at the party. The traditional Democrats get vilified and branded with the neoliberal slur. It’s all very smug. But I don’t want to get into a debate about the pros and cons of socialism. I want to know why socialism is the thing that the lefties have latched on to.

Socialism isn’t like climate change or the heliocentric solar system, the science (if you can call economics a science) isn’t even close to settled. There are no facts to turn to. There’s no consensus of experts. But those on the left are convinced anyway. They think socialism will cure all of society’s ills.

There’s a strange religiosity about the socialists. There are certain articles of faith that they cling to, like the evils of capitalism. They blame capitalism for everything from global warming to racism and sexism. Never mind the fact that racism and sexism predate capitalism by a lot. And don’t think too much about the fact that capitalistic markets have proven effective in tackling tragedy of the commons environmental problems before. We are told to accept that just because capitalism is the dominant economic system now, and these problems exist now, capitalism must be the cause of these problems. It’s bad logic.

Socialism also has its prophets and sacred texts, most importantly Karl Marx. While Marx was a keen observer and social critic, it turns out he was no better at predicting the future than any other human being. Just because he said there would be a revolution doesn’t mean there will be. Just because he said that socialism naturally follows the overthrow of capitalism doesn’t mean it has to. As historical texts, they are interesting, but as guides to the future, they’re no better than tea leaves.

I tend to think that an economic system is like a language. We don’t choose it or have much control over it. There’s a reason why Esperanto never caught on, it’s not how language works. Capitalism has grown and changed and it will continue to grow and change. I suppose at some point it will change enough so that it is no longer considered capitalism, but there’s no telling what that new system will look like or how it will arrive. Most people probably won’t even notice. It will take future historians to pick a date when it happened. At least that’s how it always happened before. I understand the problem of induction, but my gut tells me that induction works in this case.

I’m not writing this to defend capitalism. All of the problems are real problems. We need to do something about racism, sexism, global warming, inequality, poverty and all the rest. I just don’t see a faith-based approach as the best way to deal with them. It’s too utopian, too idealistic. We need practical solutions. Capitalism is what we’ve got, we need to learn how to deal with these problems within it. If we wait for the rise of socialism, people will continue to suffer, waiting for something that may never come.

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I paid my property tax on my car today. When I did it, I had kind of a strange realization. I like paying my taxes. It’s not that I like giving up the money. Believe me, I’d love to have that $90 in my pocket. But the act of paying taxes itself is pretty great.

One thing I like about it is it makes me feel like a no-kidding, real, live grown-up. As a kid, you think there’s this big change that happens when you transition into adulthood. That’s wrong, though. Seventeen and eighteen are basically the same. And so are eighteen and nineteen. And so on right up to your forties (at least). Whether it’s negotiating the cliques at work or trying to date, adult life doesn’t feel all that different from high school. It’s nice when I get a reminder that I am really an adult now.

Another thing I like about paying my taxes is that it’s one of the few things I get to do where I know I’m doing good. I think my full time job is pretty neutral, morally speaking. My part time job does some good. But between the two jobs, parenting and sleep, I don’t have a whole lot of time leftover to really contribute. I spend a little bit of money on charities each year, but I also don’t have a lot of extra money. I pay my taxes, though. I know that that simple act is contributing to children’s education, transportation for the elderly, parks and rec programs, infrastructure repair and maintenance and a whole host of other good things. It’s a good feeling.

Paying taxes also feels good because I’m doing my civic duty. It’s a little like the feeling that comes with voting (but not as good as voting). I pay my taxes and I know that I belong to something bigger than myself. My neighbors aren’t just people who happen to live near me. Together we’re turning a bunch of individuals into a society, and our tax dollars are a big part of that.

Now just because I like paying my taxes doesn’t mean that I like everything the government does with my taxes. That’s one of the tricky things about living in a society. There has to be room for disagreement. I think the fact that I like paying my taxes means that I ultimately have faith in Government. Not a particular government, I have absolutely no faith in the current administration, but Government in general. I have hope that the Government will survive the current administration and I can continue to enjoy paying my taxes.

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They Aren’t All The Same

I saw a meme today. It was four identical pictures of a fighter jet that had just blown up a building. The only difference between the four was that the first was labelled Clinton, the second Bush, the third Obama and the fourth Trump. I had a brief thought along the lines of, “That’s just stupid,” and moved on. I had basically forgotten about it, but I was looking for something to write about today, and couldn’t think of anything better. I’d share the meme with you, but I can’t remember where I saw it and it’s not really worth looking for.

The point of the meme was that Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump are all the same. It’s utterly ridiculous, but not an uncommon idea. There are a lot of people on the left that believe that any president we have is just a manifestation of the military industrial complex or a puppet of Wall Street. It doesn’t matter if they’re Republican or Democrat. All the politicians are the same.

These are the people on the left who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And it’s the sentiment that kept Bernie from actually supporting Clinton after he lost the primary. It’s also the attitude that makes people say that the US is just as bad as Russia or China.

I’m not trying to say that Clinton or Obama were perfect. But they were worlds better than Bush or Trump. Trying to equate them is unconscionably stupid. We live in a messy world. No one is going to be perfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from supporting those who are better.

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Mathematical Platonism

I ran across an article called “The Peculiar Math that Could Underlie the Laws of Nature“. It’s an interesting article. It goes way beyond any math I ever took, but it’s still interesting. What really struck me was the title. The idea that math underlies the laws of nature. That seems to be a common a sentiment. People are always talking about the math behind different phenomena rather than saying that math describes phenomena. We hear that there’s math behind everything from music to rocket launches. It made me wonder if most people implicitly believe in mathematical Platonism.

I should state for the record that philosophy of mathematics is not my specialty. I topped out with calculus in college. I always found math interesting, though. And I was always good at it. If not for a series of atrocious math teachers in high school, who knows. But that’s a different topic. For our purposes, I’m just trying to say that I’m an interested lay person. Nothing more. If I get some of the details wrong, I apologize, but hopefully the main points will make sense.

For those new to the topic, mathematical Platonism is the idea that there are abstract mathematical objects that actually exist, independently of anyone thinking about them. So math is not a human invention that we use to describe the world, math actually exists. This has been one of the most hotly debated topics in philosophy over the past 30 years. The implications of mathematical Platonism are big if it’s true. It would mean that mathematical truths are literally discovered. And if there are intelligent aliens, there’s a good chance that they would have discovered the same math we did and we’d have a chance of communicating. It also means that mathematical statements are true or false based on correspondence. Just like the statement, “Grass is green,” is true or false based solely on whether or not actual grass is actually green, 1+3=4 is not true by definition, but in the same way, “Grass is green,” is true. It is true because the actual entity 1, when added to the actual entity 3, equals the actual entity 4.

Just to drive home the point, the common sense view of the world says that there are two types of things, independent and dependent. Independent things are things that exist regardless of us knowing about them. These are things like rocks and trees and water. Dependent things are things that only exist because we have created them. These are things like money and marriage and laws. For someone to believe in mathematical Platonism is for someone to believe that mathematical objects are independent, like rocks, trees and water. It’s like saying that Pythagoras didn’t invent the Pythagorean Theorem. The theorem has been out there since the beginning of time, and Pythagoras just happens to be the person who discovered it.

Explained this way, I think most people would take the common sense position that mathematical Platonism is not true. It just seems weird to think that 6 exists independently in the same way the sun exists. But if people really believed that, why is it so common for people to make statements about math underlying, supporting and making up real independent phenomena? There seems to be a disconnect.

My personal view is that mathematical Platonism is incorrect. I see math as a language that we created to describe the world around us. Saying that prime numbers are actual independent entities is as absurd as saying that gerunds are actual independent entities. I don’t think mathematical Platonism is necessary to explain the success of math or the sense of discovery. It’s successful because we only keep what works. And we can discover new things about baseball, chess or democracy without there being independent democracy objects that actually exist. Yet I find myself falling into the language of mathematical Platonism frequently.

My best guess is that the reason we talk as if mathematical Platonism is true is because it’s a powerful metaphor. Talking about abstract concepts is difficult. Treating abstract concepts like objects makes it easier. It’s similar to the way we personify things all the time. It’s just easier to talk about things as if they have a purpose or a desire, it makes them more relatable. Math is just easier to talk about if we assume it’s real.

Of course this is just skimming the surface of the debate. It’s where both my intuition and my more considered thoughts lead me. I could very well be wrong. I might even be happy if I am wrong. I like the idea of mathematical Platonism. I just can’t bring myself to buy it. I think it’s a tool we came up with to make things easier to talk about. It would please me if someone could convince me otherwise.

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Baseball is my favorite sport. I could watch a baseball game any time and be relatively happy. It doesn’t even have to be my team, as long as it’s baseball. It puzzles me that the people who are supposed to be promoting the game don’t seem to agree with me.

The commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, doesn’t even seem to agree with me that baseball is good and fun. I’m often unsure whether he even likes the game. He seems to want to tell anyone who will listen what’s wrong with baseball. And a huge chunk of the announcers act like their being put out if a game goes longer than three hours. As a fan, it’s frustrating.

I’m not trying to say the game is perfect. There’s still a drug problem. If I had my way, I’d get rid of the DH and interleague play. I’d bring back the balanced schedule. I’d look for ways to make hitters embarrassed by strikeouts and pitchers embarrassed by walks. I might even move the fences back where possible to encourage more doubles and triples. But none of that is going to happen, so I don’t spend my time talking about it. The game’s not perfect, but it’s good as it is.

I’d be happy if the commissioner and the announcers could start being positive about the sport they work in. The people who watch watch because they like it. They don’t want to hear all the complaints all the time. And if we’re trying to get new people to watch, I think it would work a lot better to focus on how awesome Mookie Betts, Max Scherzer, Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout are than pointing out all of the game’s problems all the time. Accentuate the positive and they can make a great game even more enjoyable.

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Living Colour

I ran across something online recently that said that “Cult of Personality” was released thirty years ago this month. That means I became a fan of Living Colour thirty years ago this month. I can actually remember listening to the song on the radio during the summer of 1988. I was thirteen years old and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I probably got the album, Vivid, that fall, or maybe for that Christmas. I’ve been a big fan ever since.

I have all their albums, including last year’s Shade. My favorite is probably Stain, but there’s something about Vivid that made a huge impression on me. I remember being confused about what kind of music it was. The press treated it as a metal album. They couldn’t get enough of the story of a black group performing heavy metal music. It never struck me as particularly metal-y. There are elements of metal, but they’re no more prominent that the elements of rock, R&B, funk, soul, punk and jazz. I’ve kind of come to think of it as heavy funk. But I guess technically it’s fusion.

The musicianship is incredible, from all four of them. I’ve always been struck by the fact that they can play anything, and the album sounds like it does because that’s what they wanted it to sound like. That may seem like an odd thing to say. But most music sounds like it does because of cultural trends and the quirks of the particular artist. I love John Lee Hooker, but he doesn’t sound like he does because of a choice, he sounds like he does because that’s what John Lee Hooker sounds like. It’s hard to explain, but Vivid sounds intentional in a way that most albums do not.

Vivid was also one of the first overtly political albums I ever listened to that wasn’t from my parent’s generation. I knew plenty of political music about the sixties, but in the eighties the closest we came was “We Are the World”. I didn’t even understand half of the album at the time. I was a white kid from the suburbs. But I was fascinated by “Cult of Personality”, “Open Letter to a Landlord” and “Which Way to America” in particular. I felt like I was learning something important as I listened.

I can’t believe it’s been thirty years. I’m listening to the album now and it’s still great. It’s still as musically exciting as it was in 1988. And the politics are still amazingly relevant. I’m glad at least some of the music I was listening to at thirteen still holds up.

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