Types and tokens of blue 
Yesterday I learned about recent work by jazz combo Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Their album "Blue" is a note-for-note remake of "Kind of Blue". They transcribed all of the solos and performed them with meticulous care so as to produce a recorded album that replicates, as much as they could, the sound of the original.

The exercise has philosophical implications, and they know it. There are echoes of Pierre Menard's Quixote, which they foreground by using the Borges short story as their liner notes. Menard's goal, however, was not to copy but to put himself in a state of mind where he would write words that coincided with Cervantes' original. The parallel exercise would be if the band had tried to live their lives in a way which led them to improvise just the same notes which Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, and the rest improvised back in the 1950s. That exercise would not have produced this album, because that exercise would not have led to something which sounds so precisely like "Kind of Blue".

So it's important that the band transcribed the solos, recorded tracks separately, and acted so carefully so as to preserve information from the original performances. One natural reaction is that such slavish emulation isn't jazz. Moppa Elliott (bassist for the band) discusses this point in an interview about the project. He asks, "Is what we did even jazz? If it isn’t, what does that make it? If it’s not jazz, why not?"

I've now read a bunch of reviews of the album. Perhaps the best is Bruce Lindsay's deadpan paean. It's odd that nobody refers to "Blue" as a cover of "Kind of Blue". Part of this is because 'cover' is a category in rock music, not jazz. Rock and jazz have different versioning practices. But there's a familiar variety of cover where musicians attempt to play a song so that it sounds precisely like a canonical version of that song. In our terms, this is a mimic cover.

The similarity to a mimic cover makes it odd when Marc Meyers in the Wall Street Journal review speculates that, "If 'Blue' is even moderately successful, jazz, rock and soul musicians may be motivated to clone other pivotal works like the Beatles' 'Rubber Soul,'..." Beatles covers and cover bands are already a thing.

In the paper where we introduce the phrase, Christy, Cristyn, and I argue that mimic covers are properly evaluated in terms of their fidelity to the original. I'm not sure whether that's the case with "Blue". Elliott suggests that the point is the opposite, to get people to listen to the original with an attentiveness to precisely those features which couldn't be or at least weren't faithfully reproduced in the cover.

However, because it is a transcription and performance by skilled musicians, "Blue" preserves information about the original (in a technical sense of 'information'). So one gets a kind of access to the original by listening to the new album. Imagine civilization collapses, all copies of the original Miles Davis album are lost, but somehow a copy of "Blue" survives. Certainly the jazz techno-priests in that dystopian future would listen to the album as a way to appreciate the way Davis and his band played, not the way Elliott and his band played. The performances, as repeatable interpretation types, are preserved in this meticulous homage.

In our less counter-factual dystopia, however, we have recordings of "Kind of Blue" to listen to alongside recordings of "Blue". The new album is like one half philosophical thought experiment, one half virtuosic accomplishment, and one half redundancy.

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Some people have a latex allergy 
In the Facebook LaTeXoSoPHeRs group, Kevin Timpe links to a webpage where Josh Parsons claims that philosophers shouldn't use LaTeX. I ended up replying at some length. Rather than just bury my rant over on FB, I'm reposting here.

Parson claims that LaTeX is a proprietary format just like the Word doc format. This is just perplexing. I have Word documents from the 90s that current versions of Word won't read correctly. Even though I have copies of the data, I need to look at hard copies if I want to look back at those papers. But LaTeX source is plaintext, and so the files will be readable until I either lose the data or computers becomes very different.

Plus, here are some advantages of LaTeX he doesn't list.

1. The source/document distinction means that you can include comments which don't show up in the document itself. This has lots of uses. For example, comment out a paragraph that you don't want to forget forever but don't want to include in a submission.

2. The source is plaintext, so you can grep it. This isn't just the cargo cult fascination with bells and whistles, but real timesaving functionality for people who know how to use regular expressions.

3. Although the fact that it specifies typesetting can be a downside (with respect to accessibility) it's an upside with respect to producing typeset pages. I have self published two books using LaTeX. Alternative word processors would not have done the trick.

4. The ability to define commands allows for useful modularity. One of the books I self published is a logic textbook. I defined commands for all of the logical notation. Somebody who uses different symbols than I do can redefine the commands, process the source, and have an edition of the book in whatever notation they prefer.

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<the greatest weight, the greatest weight> 
Imagine an angel comes to you in the night, when you are feverish and in the midst of metaphysical reveries. The angel says that she has been taught metaphysics by God, and so she can answer truthfully any questions you might have. You are slow to react, and this is the first question that you think to ask: Do ordered pairs exist?

The angel boggles and, after an awkward pause, asks you to explain the question.

Well, you say, you encounter individuals like your armchair, your pajamas, your fireplace, and so on. (You pick these because they are close at hand, and you can point at them.) Making sense out of the semantics of relations leads to positing a further thing which is an ordered pair of two objects. For example, the relation "__ is wearing __" holds of a pair of things; e.g. <you, your pajamas>.

The angel laughs. The sound is a bit like a wind chime and a bit like a carnival.

Your mind is too small, says the angel. God considered making a world like that, built out of individuals which stood in pairwise relations to one another. This seemed like it would be a waste of infinite power and infinite intellect. What God did instead was to directly create all of what you think of as ordered pairs. To God, each of these has a separate and true name.

You blurt out, almost interrupting: That's absurd! Surely God thinks of individual things, rather than only of pairs.

In a way, the angel replies. God can think of you by using the name for what you, with your limited intellect, think of as the ordered pair <you, you>.

But... surely individuals are more fundamental than ordered pairs. If two things exist, like the angel and the fireplace, then there are necessarily ordered pairs <angel, angel>, <fireplace, fireplace>, <angel, fireplace>, and <fireplace, angel>. Having enumerated the four possibilities, you consider saying "QED" but instead thump your fist on the arm of your chair.

Of course God made all those, and what God makes must necessarily be so. Yet God, considering only infinite power, might have refrained from making <fireplace, fireplace> while still making <fireplace, angel> and <angel, fireplace> and all the rest. There would not be the thing which you think of as the individual fireplace.

You know, says the angel, you've been very sick and you're taking this lesson very seriously. I think we better stop now.

What would you make of this encounter, after your fever had passed?

[edited for clarity]

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Facebook and civil society 
A while ago, there was considerable controversy about Google+ insisting that people use their real names in their profiles. G+ ultimately relented.

I had not realized that Facebook has a similar policy. It turns out that Facebook recently deactivated the accounts of several LGBT activists and has only reactivated them for a brief period, insisting that the activists use their real names or have their accounts deactivated again. The EFF has details.

I have, as a conscious choice, used my real name for almost all of my on-line presence: philosopher, gamer, font designer, cartoonist, and all the rest. The one exception is pseudonymous because it was originally a collaboration, not because I want to distance myself from potentially offensive content.

Having a single identity has made sense for me, but it is a luxury. I can do it because I am in a comfortable position socially and economically. There isn't an aspect of my life which will be threatened if someone connects the dots between what I'm doing in different domains.

Not everybody can afford to be connected in daily life to the identity that they use on Facebook. They have nevertheless invested quite a lot of time and energy in the public persona that they present on Facebook. And that's one bad thing about Facebook, because it is a closed system. If Facebook decides to delete the account, then all the content that was posted and all the connection that were made are gone. With the Web (in the old-school sense of a personal home page) or even Twitter, the content is preserved in a public archive. Not so Facebook.

Facebook justifies its policy on the grounds that people using real names will be more civil. However, that's bullshit. Those of us who can comfortably use our real names can also comfortably be uncivil using them. It's hard for me to imagine saying anything that would make me the target of off-line violence, but that is precisely the lived experience of queer activists.

Real names are not necessary for civility: If someone has invested time in developing an account and an on-line identity under a pseudonym, then the cost of losing that is the same as if it were in their own name.

Real names aren't sufficient for civility, either: Plenty of jackasses are willing to say horrible things under their own names. Not to turn too quickly to farce, but Adolf Hitler would have been happy to post under his own name.


To add an epicycle: Recent events, including the University of Illinois' firing of Steven Salaita and asinine comments by Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, suggest that I could be wrong about the security of my position. Unlike Salaita, however, I am a white guy who talks about science and art rather than a person of colour talks about Palestine. The rhetoric of civility is used with discrimination to squeeze the already disenfranchised. That is precisely why it is objectionable, but also precisely what gives me a margin of safety.

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Scotch philosophy 
I just finished reading "As a good bartender might" by Thomas W. Polger, in which he enquires into whether whiskey and varieties of whiskeys are natural kinds. His answer, disappointingly, is that they might but he isn't sure: "I'm sure that not every distinction drawn among beverages qualifies them as natural kinds, but I would like to think that whiskey - bourbon in particular - is one of them."

He suggests, sensibly, that whiskies might be divided into natural kinds in terms of their ingredients: barley, rye, wheat, or corn. Although barley and corn plants form distinct natural kinds, they might still not underwrite separate beverage kinds. The matter is complicated by the fact that many whiskies use some combination of ingredients. Bourbon, for example, is predominantly but not entirely corn based.

He spends most of his attention, though, on whether place of origin divides whiskies into natural kinds. This is how liquor stores (and Wikipedia) divvy things up, but it seems like a non-starter to me. I have always counted Irish and Canadian whiskies in the same partition of whisky state space, along with blended Scotch. A more important division, which Polger doesn't discuss, is between blended whiskies and single malt or single batch whiskies.

I think that the difference between blended and single batch tracks an important culinary distinction. It seems to me that there are two different ideals in whiskey, distinct standards according to which whiskey might be judged and heights to which it can aspire. One is the smooth and crisp whiskey, best exemplified by fine blended whiskies. The other is the deep and weighty whiskey, exemplified by a peaty single malt Scotch (although it can be realized in other ways).

My father is rather fond of Johnny Walker Blue Label. To me, it exemplifies the first ideal. I have had it, and I can recognize its excellence for what it is. I am unimpressed not because it isn't good but because I think it chases the wrong dream. It's wasted on me. My dad, for his part, prefers Blue Label to any single malt Scotch. This difference between us is explicable in terms of the distinction between two different kinds of Scotch; the different kinds have different corresponding standards of goodness, different basins of attraction in beverage space.

This distinction cuts across ingredients. It also separates blended from single-batch bourbon. So too for rye.

Although differences in tastes are about the responses of drinkers, whiskey is a beverage. Natural kinds are always domain-relative. If we ask whether whiskies comprise natural kinds, then the proper domain should include agriculture, distilling, and drinking.

I'm not sure whether whiskies do comprise natural kinds, but the blended/single-batch (smooth/deep) divide strikes me as a plausible candidate.


Reference
Polger's essay appers in Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams, eds. Whiskey & Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Amazon link

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