Worse Than Phony

One of the most surprising features of the presidential campaign has been the transformation of John Edwards from just another vaguely irritating Democrat into someone who has become a symbol of just about everything I find politically loathesome.

And it's not just that he's transparently phony and dishonest. I'm a big boy, and know a certain amount of that is inevitable. (Although indications are that, even for a politician, Edwards is an overachiever in this area. For today's take on that, see Drew Cline's post where he put together six different examples of Edwards' slipperiness. And there's no hint that Drew even needed to think very hard about it—he got six things off the top of his head, and stopped not because he couldn't come up with more, but simply because he'd made his point.)

It's worse than that, I think. Here's an example of the sort of thing that really sets my teeth on edge: Edwards' response in the 9/27 MTV/MySpace forum, noted both by Jim Geraghty and James Taranto. A UNH freshman asked him about what he would do to "help eliminate inner-city kids [from] partak[ing] in violence." (I know: partaking? As if "violence" was some sort of free buffet, and the kids were just grabbing some from the steam table? But never mind …)

In response, Edwards rattles off the standard liberal panaceas about education, health care, job training, drug rehab, and eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. About the only single unifying theme around those solutions is: not a single one has demonstrated effectiveness in reducing violence. But the painfulness comes before that, at the beginning of Edwards' answer:

We cannot build enough prisons to solve this problem. And the idea that we can keep incarcerating and keep incarcerating — pretty soon we're not going to have a young African-American male population in America. They're all going to be in prison or dead. One of the two.
Geraghty deems this (accurately enough) hyperbolic, and offers some numbers to counter. Taranto gets closer to the real problem:
Does Edwards really mean that all young male blacks are criminals? Or is the idea that the purpose of the criminal justice system as currently constituted is to imprison young black men regardless of guilt?

Either view is plainly false. The former would be one of the most racist statements uttered by a major American politician in the past 40 years; the latter, one of the most irresponsibly demagogic.

Initial gut response: maybe the truth is somewhere in between: Edwards is 50% racist, 50% demagogue. Just a guess.

[Update: The MinuteMan also notes Edwards' response; one of his commenters notes:

I wonder just how many in the "black community" will contest this ? You don't even need any "soft racism" to have "reduced expectations". It comes for free.
Also a good point.]

But I think a more accurate observation is that we're overanalyzing a statement that completely lacks sense or substance. And is almost certainly not meant to: instead it's more of a howling signal that the utterer is a reliable, earnest member of the pack (and by the way, is running for Top Dog). There's no indication that there's any signal buried in the noise of Edwards' answer, no indication of any actual thought behind the words.

And, of course, no indication that Edwards gives two toots about inner-city violence, let alone figuring out policies to reduce it.

I've quoted Richard Mitchell from his book Less Than Words Can Say a couple times before, but here he is one more time. Application to the current case is left to the reader.

Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.
With respect to that point, It doesn't help my mood to observe on the video that both the UNH freshman questioner and the MTV moderator are both nodding in response to Edwards' answer like cheap bobbleheads.

Last Modified 2007-09-30 9:56 AM EDT

Pandora Impressions

I'd tried Pandora briefly a number of years ago. I dimly remember being unimpressed at that time. Summary: either Pandora's gotten a lot better, or my standards have gotten a lot lower. I was prompted to retry by a recent Steven Levitt post at the Freakonomics blog.

Briefly, Pandora is an Internet "radio station" that allows you (once you've established an account) to input some of your favorite artists or songs; the player then uses software based on the Music Genome Project to provide a playlist consisting of songs that resemble your favorites' musical "DNA."

For example (as I type), Pandora's playing "So Far Away" by David Gilmour. Hey, it's pretty good! When I ask Pandora why she's playing the song, she replies:

Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features mellow rock instrumentation, acoustic rhythm piano, major key tonality, and many other similarities identified in the music genome project.
(Apparently I'm a huge fan of major key tonality. I see that a lot when I ask Pandora for explanations.)

As songs play, you can hit "thumbs up" or "thumbs down"; this allows Pandora to (if I'm reading their FAQ correctly) fine-tune your preferences. So—in theory—you can tell Pandora that you like The Who; judicious use of the thumbs might let you refine that to Tommy/Quadrophenia/Who's Next-era Who instead of "early" Who or "dead-Moon" Who.

After listening for a few days, I'm impressed. Pandora plays good stuff by numerous artists, some of them I've told Pandora about, and some I've never heard of. And it's particularly impressive when Pandora "deduces" one of your favorite artists that you haven't told her about. She's pretty and smart!

As near as I can tell, however, Pandora doesn't make any judgments based on song lyrics. At least, that's the simplest explanation for her offering Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle". That might be listenable—if Harry had ripped out the mawkish lyrics and sung something else instead. But as it is, approximately two seconds into the song: Emergency Thumbs Down! Down, I say!

Similarly, Pandora played a Reba McEntire song, which was entirely fine—until Reba stopped singing, and started talking. You know, the way country singers sometimes do. Sorry, Reba; the only musician I allow to yak at me is Van Morrison. Thumbs Down!

As you can tell, playing with Pandora can be a little bit of fun.

I'm also hoping it will help detect some new artists for me. I used to rely on FM radio ("The River - 92.5 FM") for this, but ever since I got a car player for my iPod, I don't do that any more.

The basic service is free, supported by unobtrusive advertisements on the web-page player. (You can buy a subscription to be free of ads, which also allows playback on some cell phones and home audio gear.) There are "social networking" features for those people who like to share.

[Update (2007-09-30): I should also mention that, even though Pandora only advertises support for Windows and MacOS, it wasn't too tough to make it play nicely with my home Linux box, running Fedora 7. Although, as installed, Fedora doesn't understand the license-encumbered MP3 streaming format, or contain a Flash player, you can follow E-Z instructions here to remedy those shortcomings.]

Last Modified 2007-09-30 1:00 PM EDT