Mr. Spock

I’m sure you have heard that Leonard Nimoy died.  I, like almost everyone else, will forever think of him as Mr. Spock.  And I, unlike most people, will forever think of Mr. Spock as my first philosophy teacher.

Of course everyone associates Spock, and all Vulcanians (that’s what they were called in the original TV series), with logic.  While logic is a branch of philosophy, many people don’t realize that, and I’m not really talking about his logic.  Many people also know that Gene Roddenberry used stoic philosophy as a sort of guide in the creation of Spock’s character.  But, that’s not what I am talking about either.  There are two elements to Mr. Spock that are essential to all great philosophy.  One is the fact that he is always an included outsider.  The other is his sense of wonder.

The position of included outsider is important to philosophy.  What I mean by the phrase included outsider is that a philosopher needs access and distance.  Too close and there is no objectivity, but too far and objectivity is sterile. From Socrates’ gadfly to Nagel’s “View From Nowhere”, this has been a part of the philosophical tradition for as long as there has been a tradition.  Spock is the perfect embodiment of an included outsider.  He is an alien from the point of view of the audience and most of his shipmates, but he is a part of the crew and a friend.  Even on his home planet, he is half human and not fully accepted.  His outsider status allows him to see things that no one else can.  But his relationships are what allow him to use those insights.

The ancient Greeks said that philosophy begins in wonder.  Without wonder we wouldn’t progress, we wouldn’t question.  Wonder, even more than intelligence and society, is what defines us.  Spock’s sense of wonder is constantly on display, but rarely talked about.  Everyone associates Spock with the word, “Logical.”  I was always struck by his use of the word, “Fascinating.”  He is not looking for profit or power.  Spock wants to learn just because he is curious.  And I think this is where Nimoy really shines.  Vulcanians are cold and calculating when played by anyone else.  When Spock says, “Fascinating,” the sense of wonder comes through.

As I have studied philosophy, Spock has always been a kind of model.  Not because I follow any of his specific ideas, but because I try to emulate his style.  I try to cultivate a sense of wonder.  I try to be objective while still being involved and caring.  Leonard Nimoy created a character that truly impacted me and I think helped to make me who I am.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

The Left – Environmentalism

The other day, I published a post about how stupid the Left side of the political spectrum is.  My point was basically that they fail to convince people of even the most obvious things.  I got a comment suggesting that I make the arguments.  I don’t get too many comments, so I figured I’d give it a shot.  Since the original post started off giving environmentalism as an example of liberal stupidity, I’ll see what I can do with it here.

The first thing we need to do is figure out why the Left seems so stupid.  What are they doing wrong in their arguments?  I think the two culprits are idealism and smugness.  Idealism makes compromise impossible because it makes the perfect the enemy of the good, to borrow from Voltaire.  Environmentalists have a strong sense of the final goal, but seem to think we should just jump right to it.  If someone says, “We don’t have the renewable capacity to power the country right now, but natural gas is much better than coal, so let’s use natural gas as a bridge,” it sounds reasonable to most people.  But the environmentalist will immediately point out that natural gas still releases carbon into the atmosphere and methane is released during the drilling process and fracking is evil.  What started with the potential to be a conversation is immediately squandered.

The smugness is probably worse.  It comes from the sense that anyone who fails to agree with the Left’s position must be a bad person.  A feeling of superiority is destructive to conversation.  No one wants to talk to someone who acts superior.  It doesn’t matter how right a person is, if they act smug, they will not convince anyone.  When an environmentalist acts like someone is a bad person because they buy conventional food rather than organic, it is more likely to send that person to McDonalds than Whole Foods.  So, the first step in acting intelligent is to drop the idealism and smugness.  Approach people, whatever their beliefs, as if they are smart and have valid concerns.  Also, be willing to compromise.

The next step is to know the audience.  This should be so obvious as to sound silly, but it isn’t.  I think it stems from the idealism, but remember that different people have different worries.  If you’re in LA on a smoggy day, fertilizer run off isn’t a big concern.  Save that for the gulf coast fishermen and talk to the LA commuters about particulate matter and emissions standards.

Don’t blame people.  Keep the discussion positive.  People won’t change their behavior because big oil is evil.  They will change their behavior if they can save some money or live more comfortably.  Tell someone that a regular car costs $150 a month to fuel, but an electric car costs about $40 and you will get somewhere.  Tell them that SUVs are bad for the planet and you will get nowhere.

Keep the discussions about the present whenever possible.  Even if everything you say is true about the droughts and famines that will hit in the next century, it is hard to care.  In fact, it isn’t clear that we should care, but that is getting off topic.  I need to get dinner ready and I have a conference call in the morning.  I’ll worry about next century when I have some free time.  For now, just tell me about how upgrading the grid will help keep me employed or how shopping at my local farmer’s market will make my dinner tastier.

This is just an outline.  I really do have a conference call in the morning, so I’m not going to construct a full argument for environmentalism.  But, this is a much better place to argue from than where we are now.

Phenoms

I have two super powers.  One is that I can turn any light red just by approaching it.  I’m a nightmare to drive with.  The other is that I can guarantee a TV show will get low ratings just by enjoying it.  If I enjoy it from the beginning, it will get cancelled before two seasons are complete.  If I don’t like it at first, but grow to like it, it can be Parks and Recreation.

Parks and Rec was a wonderful show.  But, when I watched the show’s premier, my reaction was, “They’ve already made The Office twice.  Do we really need another one?”  I didn’t watch it again for some time, but ran into it by accident.  I was expecting 30 Rock, I think, and I found myself chuckling for 30 minutes straight.  I’ve been a faithful viewer ever since.  I’d like to apologize to the cast and crew right now.  If not for me, you probably would have been the biggest show on TV.

The series finale was great.  It wrapped everything up and reminded me why I liked the show so much.  But, I couldn’t find anyone to talk to about it because no one I know watched it.  That’s kind of frustrating, but it is the way of the world now.  There are no more cultural phenomena.  The last thing that I can think of that qualifies is Santana’s Supernatural, and that was 15ish years ago (I was going to say Harry Potter, but that started before Supernatural and it was also more than 15 years ago).

The things that are supposed to be huge just aren’t in the same way anymore.  I’m not saying that this is a bad thing or a good thing.  It’s just different.  When I was a kid, Gremlins was a phenomenon.  I have never seen the movie, but I know not to get them wet or feed them after midnight.  Frozen is a modern phenomenon.  That means that if you have regular dealings with a prepubescent girl, you have heard “Let It Go” a billion times.  But if you have boys or don’t have kids, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.  Lady GaGa is supposedly a phenomenon, but I’ve literally never heard one of her songs.  There was no one alive in 1983 who could say that about Michael Jackson.

Like I said, this isn’t really good or bad.  But, after watching the Parks and Rec finale it did make me a little sad.  This show was truly one of the all time great shows.  It deserved to have people start saying, “Treat yo’ self.”  It deserved to have people start calling each other, “workplace proximity acquaintances.”  I’m going to miss it.  I just wish I had others to miss it with me.

Choir Preaching

If there is one thing I hate it is preaching to the choir.  I don’t care if I’m the preacher, in the choir or just an innocent bystander.  It really bugs me.  I find it so distasteful that I have a hard time seeing how anyone could like it.  But, like it someone must since many people make a good living by doing it.

I should start out by saying that this doesn’t mean I have a problem any time two or more people agree with each other.  There is value in like minded people discussing topics.  No one agrees about everything, so when like minded people have a discussion, they can skip over the broad areas of agreement and focus on the areas that need work.  What I am talking about is when two or more people agree with each other and all they are willing to discuss is the things that they agree about.  And, not only that, they act very excited and threatened while having a discussion with people who agree with them about the things that they agree upon.  I’m thinking of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore (If you never noticed that Limbaugh and Moore are the same, you probably don’t mind choir preaching as much as I do).

One of the main reasons why I hate it so much is that it is completely pointless.  I know a lot of people on the left that think Rush and Bill O’Reilly are scary and that they are hurting this country.  My response is that neither one has ever made a difference.  No one has ever had an open mind about a topic (or a left leaning view) and heard one of them talk and said, “I see his point and it’s a good one!”  It just doesn’t happen.  The only people that like what they have to say are the people who start out with the same beliefs.  If they find it entertaining, so be it.  But, it isn’t anything to worry about because it doesn’t do anything.

Another reason I hate it so much is that it is so smug.  Whether it’s Christopher Hitchens railing against Mother Theresa or Michael Moore railing against GM, there is an incredible self-satisfied arrogance.  Since they are only talking to people who share their opinions, there is no need to reflect on those opinions.  Why should Hitchens try to see things from a Catholic’s point of view when he’s talking to a room full of atheists?  Why should Moore try to see things from management’s perspective when he is talking to a room full of union members?  And since their audiences never disagree with them, they naturally start to feel pretty smart.

And another reason I hate it is because it leads to sloppy thinking.  I’m not a biologist, but I have it on good authority that Richard Dawkins was one of the best once upon a time.  Since he published “The God Delusion” and it became a best seller, he’s more crack pot than thoughtful.  Charlton Heston was talented and engaging.  But get him in front of an NRA meeting and he was a raving lunatic.  People get a little success preaching to the choir and they squander their talents.

It is a free country, so if people enjoy feeling vindicated by ignoring opposing views, that is their business.  I just wish I didn’t have to witness it.

The Left

Quite a few years ago now, I was talking with my brother when he announced, “Environmentalists must be idiots.”  When I asked him what he meant, he said, “All they’re trying to do is convince people that pollution is bad and they can’t manage to do it.”  His point has stayed with me because he’s right.  There are very few statements as obviously true as, “Pollution is bad.”  Environmentalists really must be idiots.  The thing is, it isn’t just environmentalists.  The entire left side of the political spectrum is stupid.  We are all just so used to it that it takes someone with my brother’s insight to make us notice it.

The Left’s stupidity can been seen in almost every area they care about.  Look at this list:

  • It is a problem when off duty police officers kill nonthreatening people for nonviolent offenses
  • It is a problem when the military is full of rapists
  • It is a problem when bridges collapse
  • It is a problem when citizens are denied equal protection under the law
  • It is a problem when the Southwest’s main water source dries up
  • It is a problem when the food supply gets contaminated
  • It is a problem when an illness can bankrupt a family

I’d like to think that none of those problems are even a little controversial.  I would be shocked if anyone thinks these things are OK.  It seems that no one would need to be convinced of these things, but the Left can’t figure out how to convince people.  I swear they would have trouble convincing people that the sky is blue and that water is wet.

The thing that I can’t figure is why the stupidity?  Does liberalism attract stupid people or does it make people stupid?  And why does the Left act like they are smarter than everyone else?  They are too stupid to make a decently convincing argument that pollution, rape, murder, death and destruction are bad things.  They must also be too stupid to realize how stupid they are.

Serenade to a Bus Seat by The Clark Terry Quintet – A Review

When I heard Clark Terry died yesterday, the first album I went for was Serenade to a Bus Seat.  I’m not exactly sure why, but it is my favorite Clark Terry album.  He is most famous for playing flugelhorn and his mumbled scat singing, neither of which appear on this album.  It is a straight ahead hard bop session with a great band and it is just a lot of fun to listen to.

When I say it is a great band, I really mean it.  No one on the date is famous enough to be known outside of jazz circles, but they are all first choice players within the jazz community.  Philly Joe Jones was the hard bop drummer of choice in the fifties.  Johnny Griffin was as good a tenor sax player as anyone.  It was probably his move to Europe in the early sixties that kept him out of the limelight.  I have two basic rules when it comes to jazz recordings.  The first is that Paul Chambers always makes the recording better.  He literally plays bass on more classic albums than I can count.  The second is that Wynton Kelly always makes the recording better.  His piano lends a distinctive groove to everything he plays.  I’ll buy any album that has both of these players on it and I haven’t been disappointed yet.  And then there is Clark Terry.  Even at an early session like this, he is his own man.  The trumpet playing is totally distinctive.  He doesn’t sound like anyone except Clark Terry.

The session opens with Charlie Parker’s classic “Donna Lee” and it burns.  It starts with a Philly Joe drum fill and then the whole band plays the head.  Johnny Griffin gets the first solo followed by Terry and Philly Joe trading fours.  Then Wynton Kelly takes a solo that leads back into the head.  Not only is it perfect bop, it shows what this band can do.

A Clark Terry original called “Boardwalk” comes next.  This is a relaxed groove in the hard bop tradition, especially the way the trumpet and sax play together.  There are a series of short solos alternating with the head, first Terry then Griffin.   Then the head drops out and the two soloists go back and forth.  It’s nice to hear them play off of each other.  It’s playful rather than competitive.  Then Kelly gets some solo space to himself before coming back to the head.

“Boomerang” is another Terry original.  This brings the tempo back up a bit.  It’s a fun line.  Terry starts off the solos followed Griffin and Kelly.  Then we get the first bass solo of the record.  Chambers plays it arco and shows that he can keep up with anyone.  Then, they play the head and Philly Joe gets a brief moment before the close.

Another Terry original called “Digits” comes next.  This one relaxes the tempo a bit.  It’s a relatively short song at just over four minutes, so everyone keeps it economical.  But there is a nice duet between Terry and Griffin before Kelly’s solo.

Next is the title track, “Serenade to a Bus Seat” and it is also by Terry.  This tune is just plain fun.  Griffin starts off the solos followed by Terry.  Kelly’s comping reminds us that jazz is dance music at its heart and the feeling continues during his solo.  You just can’t help but tap your foot.

The Carmichael/Parish standard “Stardust” comes next and we get to see what this band can do with a ballad.  It is lush and romantic.  Philly Joe is on brushes and everyone’s playing is straightforward and tasteful.  That’s not a bad thing, though.  They are playing the song rather than playing over the changes.

With Terry’s “Cruising” we’re back to laid back hard bop.  This is the longest tune on the album and gives the players some room to spread out.  Griffin takes the first solo and Philly Joe is wonderfully responsive throughout.  Terry comes next.  I love the way he uses space and really lets the song breathe.  Then we get Kelly’s solo followed by Paul Chambers and the band trading before the close.

The session ends with Arlen/Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic”.  This is another dance number.  There is a definite Latin tinge to it.  And it’s short at just under two minutes.  Everyone says their piece and it fades out.

All in all, this is just a fun record.  The songs are great and the band is great.  I give it the highest recommendation.

The Job Market

Robert Paul Wolff writes a very entertaining blog called The Philosopher’s Stone.  Even when he is just bragging about his grandchildren, it is still utterly charming.  A little while ago, I read a post called Ein Gedankenexperiment A La Rawls.  In this post, he describes a thought experiment to determine what jobs would be worth in a free market.  The gist of it is that all jobs are handed out randomly to all the workers, all with the same salary.  Then, people start trading.  The value of the jobs will depend on how desirable they are and how difficult they are.  It shows how messed up our current system is.  Garbage collectors would be making much more than stock brokers in a free market, so clearly our labor market isn’t free.

Since reading the piece, I keep thinking about it.  I like the thought experiment, but I believe it is missing a key feature of a truly free market and I want to make a modification.  In a truly free market, there needs to be an option to opt out.  If you imagine a market for dinnerware, there will be some pieces that are rare and coveted and they will sell for a lot.  There will also be some pieces that are chintzy and those will sell for a little.  But there are also some people that will say, “No thanks.  I’ll just use my hands.”  It is even probable that the chintzy dinnerware winds up disappearing because people would rather eat with their hands than purchase it.

In order to add the opt out feature to the labor thought experiment, we just need to posit a guaranteed minimum income.  This is an idea with some pedigree from Hayek on the right to Galbraith on the left.  Once the guaranteed minimum income is in place, when the jobs are handed out randomly, the options become to keep the job given, to try to trade for a different job or to opt out.  The dynamics of the market would be largely the same.  The biggest difference is that no one would take certain types of jobs.  There would be no worry about necessary jobs being unfilled because those would have to pay more.  And there would be no worry about fun jobs being unfilled because people would want them.  The jobs that would disappear would be the jobs that are neither fulfilling nor necessary.  I can’t imagine many middle managers would come out of this system.

When all is said and done, there would be a much smaller work force, but it would be a much more efficient workforce.  Perhaps we could even get a glimpse of Plato’s ideal state rather than the city of pigs he describes in The Republic.  Unfortunately, the people who are always talking about market efficiency and freedom would never go for this.  They have too much to lose since their jobs aren’t really necessary.  And they run the world.  So, this will remain a humble thought experiment.