Saturday, 27 October 2012


Alright, enough already. I'll answer the question you all keep screaming: what do I think about Crispy's post on Taylor Swift's new album, Red, and by extension the album itself? In short, I think Crispy is too optimistic in his assessment of Taylor's new direction, and while I'd like to celebrate Red as a successful creative work, there are some problematic elements in the music that need to be unpicked.

Red marks the end (or at least the final stages) of Taylor Swift's metamorphosis from chintzy small-town country-pop girl-next-door to fully-fledged pop princess. The music is much more obviously produced, the synth lines are more prominent, and the familiar Taylor guitar is in the background when it's audible at all.

Let's deal with the obvious criticism: that Taylor's sold out, that she's gone corporate and abandoned her authentic roots, that she's now indistinguishable from any other successful pop robot. Crispy does a good job of dismissing this argument. All the major threads of Taylor's style are still present, if a little muted - from the occasional clever line in the bridge, put there to catch you off-guard, to the use of a "stepped-down version of the chorus as an intro", in Crispy's words - so long-time fans will find plenty to like here.

What about Crispy's claim that Taylor inverts the current pop paradigm? It's undeniable that instead of singing about partying and a commitment-free life, she generally sings about family and marriage. This is a clear continuation of her past work - even songs like Back to December, which feature a protagonist who casts aside commitment, demonstrate clear regret. But is this as interesting or as desirable an antithesis as Crispy says?

Taylor's good-girl attitude is an (authentic or manufactured) product of Small Town America. With her blonde hair and summery dresses, she projects the image of a girl-next-door. Think about the music video for You Belong With Me, where Taylor plays both the cute blonde love interest and the hot, black-haired cheerleader rival. Just as the girl-next door can't exist without the cheerleader, Taylor's focus on commitment in her music relies upon the current pop paradigm instead of subverting it. Rather than providing something truly new, she satisfies herself by occupying the other end of the current dichotomy. It's like the old madonna/whore dilemma in feminist theory - when the Catholic Church venerates the Blessed Virgin, that works to prop up its traditional misogyny instead of undermining it.

Enough with the themes, though. What about the music? It's, well, okay. Not bad. Starlight is good, as is The Lucky One, but songs like I Knew You Were Trouble fail to grab me. Taylor's country roots are still there, but they're in danger of being smothered. In his post, Crispy assumes that Taylor has arrived at her pop-princess pedestal - and if she has, that's fantastic - but I'm not so sure. What worries me as I listen to Red is the direction Taylor's taking: less guitars, more synth; less soul; more pop. Can she pick a path forward without drifting towards Britney Spears? I don't know. And I'm not sure I can bear to watch.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Harlem Roulette

The loneliest people in the whole wide world
are the one you’re never going to see again.

And four hours north of Portland, the radio flips on.
And some no one from the future remembers that you’re gone.
Armies massing in the dusky distance, ghosted in the ribbon microphone.
Leave a little mark on something negative, take the secret circuit home.
Nothing’s in the shadows but the shadow hands,
Reaching out to sad young frightened men.

The loneliest people in the whole wide world
are the one you’re never going to see again.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Essential Driving Safety Tips

Every year, hundreds of people are killed on our roads by drunk drivers. It's a sobering thought - that this carnage is happening all around us - and it shines a spotlight on the reckless and cavalier behavior of many drivers. Of course I'm talking about the victims: those who die, or are left with horrific injuries, or a lifetime of chronic pain. Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that these people are at fault; I'm just saying that if they had made different, more responsible choices, they wouldn't have put themselves in their predicaments. It's a hard world, and we have to be sensible about the risks we take. There's no use taking up the mantle of victimhood and whining from the comfort of a hospital bed about how bad and evil drunk drivers are - it is, in the words of the philosopher, what it is. Instead, follow these driving safety tips and change yourself from a potential victim to a proactive and adult participant in the dangerous world of traffic.

1) Drive a Visible Car

You were crashed into from behind, were you? You were following all the road rules and the driver who hit you was off his mind on cocaine? Well, let's think about it rationally: if you had been more visible to the cocaine addict behind you, you wouldn't have been hit at all. Was your car black, or grey? Even bolder colours like red and yellow don't show up well at night. Really, unless your car is bright pink you've only got yourself to blame. To be safe - after all, safety is the goal here, and who could argue with that? - drape bright Christmas lights all over your car. It's expensive, sure, and ugly, but such is the price of responsibility.

2) Drive on Safe Roads

As responsible adults, we have to recognize that many roads and highways are very dangerous. To avoid an accident, only drive on roads with working streetlights. If a streetlight is broken or damaged, turn around and find another route. Especially in the country, highways will often have few streetlights. If you are forced to drive in these areas, park your car as soon as the sun sets and don't start driving until it rises again. Lack of light isn't the only issue - there are regions where the traffic is more unruly and less trustworthy in general, like cities or suburbs. If you see more than one other car on the road with you, pull over immediately! Otherwise you're accepting a serious risk (along with a degree of responsibility for the inevitable accident).

3) Drive at Safe Times

It's a statistical fact that most drunk driving accidents occur at times when people are likely to be drunk. Friday and Saturday nights are the most dangerous - really, if you're in a car on a weekend night, you've only got yourself to blame - but during the weekend, any driver you pass could be drunk as a sailor. Of course, if you're driving your children around, you'll want to be completely safe and never drive after midday, even on weekdays. Need to pick them up from school? Don't - instead, move house so you're living a short walk away.

Of course, following these helpful tips doesn't guarantee your safety. Risk is an inevitable and healthy part of life. However, if you get hit and injured by a drunk or drugged driver and you weren't following these tips, don't expect my sympathy. We live in a dangerous world, and it's hardly 'blaming the victim' to suggest that making yourself vulnerable to a risk that you could potentially avoid is foolish. In the aftermath of an accident, concentrating on driving visibly and safely is much more helpful than wallowing in self-pity. Let's work together to take responsibility for our actions and avoid the toxic mindset of victimhood.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Cry For Judas

Some things you do / just to see / how bad they make you feel

I love the song - and the new Mountain Goats album, oh my - but this music video doesn't really live up to my expectations for Mountain Goats music videos.

On the one hand, all the ingredients are there - from the obviously symbolic, like the rat poking its way around the dollhouse/maze (and at one point freaking out in the 'bathroom', I have no idea how they got that shot) to the completely impenetrable, like John Darnielle reciting lyrics to a silent child in a tiger mask. There's the child researching and performing his Satanic ritual, echoing The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton. There are even strains of the lapsed Catholicism that informs so much of Darnielle's efforts. But they don't fit together very well. What's the significance of the pregnancy test? Why does John Darnielle get killed by Peter Peter Hughes?

Thematically it's a jambalaya, a mix of all the elements in the music of the Mountain Goats, thrown together in the hope that it will work. It sort of does, like the music video for This Year. Still, it's got nothing on the best Mountain Goats music videos, which pick one visual theme - pictures in pictures, say, or dynamic text - and run with it.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Contra Ivan

I'm still catching up on From Wine to Water, but I thought this post was worth commenting on. Ivan argues that, in spite of the obvious fact that two contradictory statements cannot be true, our day-to-day thoughts contradict themselves all the time. As an example, he describes a person who eats meat because it tastes good but also believes that killing animals is morally wrong. I enjoyed reading the post, but I don't think Ivan is correct here for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the actual contradiction he teases out is not entirely accurate. get an out-and-out contradiction, we need to do a bit more work, and probably to draw upon other things we believe to be true. For example, we might believe that 3) we will eat animals since they are delicious, and 4) we will not do things that are terrible. The explicit contradiction now emerges: We will not do things that are terrible, such as hurting animals. And we will hurt animals to eat them, since they are delicious. We both will and will not do something terrible. P and not-P.

What Ivan meant here with point (4) - and, Ivan, please correct me if I'm wrong - sounds more like 4b) we should not do things that are terrible. There's no contradiction between "we will eat meat because it is delicious" and "we shouldn't eat meat because of the cruelty involved".

Another possibility is that Ivan meant 4c) we do not do things that are terrible. This seems closer to the way most people think, since after all it's very hard for anybody to accept that they do terrible things. But there's no necessary contradiction between "we do not do things that are terrible" and "hurting animals to eat them is terrible"! We might imagine a point 5) if we do not eat this meat, somebody else will, or a point 6) eating this meat helps the farmers and abattoir workers feed their own families. Neither of these points are particularly good arguments, but that is not particularly relevant*. To the extent that meat-eaters usually think their meat-eating out, it's highly likely that hey avoid a contradiction by the use of some such rationalization.

Most importantly, though, I want to question Ivan's implicit assumption that most people do think out their practices in this way. Since there's no immediate and obvious contradiction in "hurting animals is wrong, but I still eat meat", the law of non-contradiction does not apply**. In the absence of a serious philosophical inquiry into your own justification for meat-eating, your justification is far too vague to contradict or be contradicted by anything!

Unlike Ivan, I think that people usually do obey the law of non-contradiction in their own thought. You can see this if you argue against, say, somebody who eats meat. If you point out an apparent contradiction, as Ivan did in his post, they will invariably argue against you or come up with an alternate rationalization for eating meat (assuming they don't change their mind). What they will not do is shrug their shoulders and calmly accept the contradiction. Ivan is wrong to argue that human cognition does not obey the law of non-contradiction, but he's not all wrong. Human action, of course, breaks the law of non-contradiction all the time - and that's why we need philosophy.


* Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian who believes that eating meat is ethically wrong.

** If there is an "immediate and obvious" contradiction here, then there is also a similar contradiction in this example: "I wish to go to the post office, which lies due south from my apartment, but in order to get to the door of my apartment I first have to take five steps north."

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Ghost Of IOZ

As a rule, the most unseemly thing about any presidential candidate is his desire to be president. How is it that making zillions in private equity isn't enough? How was it that the ruling over an entire American state did not quench your thirst for power? What insatiable impulse drives your dark ambition to reign over the richest nation on earth? Surely the person put in charge of the sentient drone army should not display a naked desperation for dominance. Surely the answer to this yearning for power isn’t nomination but therapy.

So speaks Kerry Howley over at Slate (oddly enough, in the XXFactor section, misogynistically subtitled "what women really think"). If that first paragraph didn't raise the hairs on the nape of your neck, then perhaps the rest will: Howley writes an impassioned plea to vote for an unpopular third-party Marxist candidate who, even if she were to receive enough votes, would be too young to serve as President anyway. It is the best US election commentary I have read this year, and certainly the best article on Slate ever.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Gettier Cases: You Don't Know That

Can we imagine a case where you believe something, you're right, and you've got good reason to believe it - and yet you don't know that thing? We certainly can. Let's say you're a teacher at a high school, and the principal drives a very conspicuous car: a pink Ferrari. You show up to work one morning and see the pink Ferrari in the car park. In the staff room, another teacher asks you whether the principal's at work today.

"Yes," you say. "I saw his car."

As it happens, the principal is at work - but the pink Ferrari in the car park is, by pure chance, not his car but somebody else's. Did you know that the principal was at work?

By any reasonable standard, seeing an identical car to his in the car park would constitute good reason for your belief. And he is at work, after all! But intuitively, we don't want to say that you knew it.

Here's one reason why. If you had been informed that the pink Ferrari was not the principal's car - perhaps the other teacher replies "yes, I saw the car too, but it has a slightly different numberplate" - you would have changed your mind. In order to know something, it seems like there ought to be no true piece of information out there that, if you knew it, would make you decide you were wrong.

This kind of case is called a Gettier case after the first person to formulate one, Edmund Gettier. The general principle is to propose a situation where you have a true belief, but your justification for believing it happens by sheer chance to be wrong. Gettier cases pose serious problems for people who think knowledge is "justified true belief". Can a better definition of knowledge be found? Can the JTB definition of knowledge be altered to accommodate the Gettier cases? There's no consensus in philosophy right now, but I'll outline some competing theories next post.