Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Philosophy at work

"The Case for Working With Your Hands" is possibly the best bit of philosophical writing I've ever read in a popular publication. The next time someone asks me what's worthwhile about philosophy, I think I'll start talking about this article.

The author, Matthew Crawford, has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, worked various white-collar office jobs along the way, and has since ended up running his own motorcycle repair shop. Now he has brought his massive edumacation to bear on his experiences with different kinds of work, revealing the soul-destroying effects of much white-collar work, and the great value of work in the trades and being an entrepreneur. What emerges are some profound and terribly relevant thoughts on the relationship between work and happiness, and how massively we tend to misunderstand this relationship nowadays. And he does this all without any jargony philosobabble, and scarcely and name-dropping. The perspective on work here seems deeply Marxist to me, but Marx gets mentioned just once; he manages to talk about "alienation", "actualization", and other such concepts without using any of those weird words. I think I might someday use his description of his desk job (writing abstracts for articles according to profit-driven--i.e., arbitrary--standards) as an example of what Plato means when he talks about the shadows on the wall in the allegory of the cave in the Republic. I'm kind of in awe.

In the online comments, there are lots and lots of white-collar yuppie types (well, I'm guessing that's what they're like) finding the problems in their lives precisely diagnosed by that article. It's really quite remarkable. Not only is the article a great piece of popular philosophy, it addresses the good old question that started philosophy in the first place--how should we live?--in a way that might even be of some help to some people.

My one quibble--as some people in the comments point out--is that he puts too much emphasis on trades and entrepreneurship. I think the deep point to be gotten from the article is that work can and should be a source of value: you should be able to see something good in the work you do, in the work itself. But you can find that sort of work outside of the trades, and you can find it without working for yourself. You can even find it in an office job with a boss.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I've been contemplating this for a while, but now I've officially decided. I'm going to buy one new kind of produce each time I visit the local produce store, until I've tried cooking with every damn thing in the place.

This will take a while. Although I miss the produce sections back in Vancouver, you could hardly hope for better in a neighbourhood market in the midwest. For example, it's happily always stocked with napa cabbage, bok choi (two varieties), shiitake, cilantro, and lemon grass. At the moment there are tamarinds; a few times in the somewhat distant past they stocked enoki. Occasionally there are chinese eggplants and daikon.

Anyway, the selection is great. And there's lots of stuff there I've never touched before.

So, a few days ago I ended up making Indian style opo squash (aka dudhi, and a whole bunch of other names). Dawn says it's now her favourite variety of squash (heh, she likes dudhi). Sometime soon I'll have to figure out something to do with anise, aka fennel (the vegetable, not the seeds). I think the internets are telling me to roast the bulbs and use the tops in salads.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Weekly meatlessness

The city of Ghent, Belgium, is already doing this (well, maybe not on Mondays):
Ghent means to recognise the impact of livestock on the environment.

The UN says livestock is responsible for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, hence Ghent's declaration of a weekly "veggie day".

Public officials and politicians will be the first to give up meat for a day.

Schoolchildren will follow suit with their own veggiedag in September.

It is hoped the move will cut Ghent's environmental footprint and help tackle obesity.

Around 90,000 so-called "veggie street maps" are now being printed to help people find the city's vegetarian eateries.
Cutting it out entirely would be better, of course, but a whole city that goes meatless one day a week does more good than rather a large number of individual vegetarians.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Just war for dummies

Courtesy of Avishai Margalit and Michael Walzer:
Conduct your war in the presence of noncombatants on the other side with the same care as if your citizens were the noncombatants.
See how easy this is? Try it! I'm sure you'll like it.


Monday, May 11, 2009

"Hilltop 26"

I've been reading stories of peace activism in Israel/Palestine. In general they are good for my soul. This one here is especially nice (post 1, and 2; via). Some Israeli and Palestinian peaceniks get together. They find an illegal outpost built by settlers, and start building their own illegal structure next to it. In come the settlers, and the army, and down goes the activists' outpost. Meanwhile the adjacent, illegal, settlers' outpost is left untouched. Similarly, some of the activists are arrested (though this was a non-violent protest--on the part of the peace activists, if not the settlers and soldiers):
Their crime? Not obeying the ‘closed military order’. The settlers were also guilty of this crime but that did not wind them up in jail for six hours.
This action strikes me as damn near a work of art. At any rate, it's worth several thousand words about the relation between the settler movement and the rule of law. And when an Israeli politician talks about freezing the building of new settlements, ignore the words, and focus instead on the soldiers ensuring that settlers have the freedom to build new settlements. (Not to mention the talk of allowing "natural" growth of the settlements--a contradiction in terms.)

I hear they're worried this state might fail

An end to air strikes in Afghanistan, demanded by President Hamid Karzai after scores of civilians were allegedly killed this week, would deprive Afghan troops of vital protection, a US official said Friday.
You know, in some countries, the government gets to decide what protection the armed forces should receive from allies.

The moan, the miserable groan

(Hat tip to, I dunno, a whole bunch of people.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dead innocents in Afghanistan--more stupid evil

U.S. blames Taliban for Afghan civilian deaths:
A joint U.S.-Afghan investigation confirmed that an unspecified number of civilians died in a southern Afghan battle local officials say killed dozens of villagers, but the initial findings released Saturday appeared to blame Taliban militants who used locals as human shields.
Fuck off. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? The Taliban are to blame for endangering the villagers. Meanwhile the air strike is to blame for actually killing the villagers. See how this works? This is not hard.

And another thing. If this were a case of a clear conflict between morality and narrow self-interest, there would at least be some sort of sense to made of it. But(as with so many of the evils in the world today) boneheaded actions like this are obviously counter to narrow self-interest, just plain counterproductive. The long-term strategic interests of American forces demand that the locals think of them as the good guys, i.e., that they not slaughter civilians. Self-interest and morality coincide entirely. But it doesn't help.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

An encounter with greenness

Today we ran across a few people dividing up plots in a community garden in the making. We stopped to admire it, and one of the people (who had a clipboard and thus looked official) came over to talk to us and take our contact info. (We may or may not get a chance to claim a plot. It's hard to say, since we have to move, and we're not sure whether we'll end up close enough to make it likely that we'll actually visit the garden on a regular basis.)

The clipboard garden guy was Ken Dunn, who (as he told us) used to be a philosophy grad student at the UofC, back in the days when it was populated by the villains from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And (as subsequent googling revealed) according to the Tribune he is quite possibly Chicago's greenest person.
Dunn produces only 3,800 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, as compared with the 44,000 pounds produced by the average American....

The difference between Dunn’s annual emissions and the average is the equivalent of chopping down 600 square feet of Amazon rain forest or driving a Honda Accord 60,300 miles on the highway....

Stated another way, Dunn is already living at roughly the level of carbon emissions that scientists at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say the average human must achieve by 2100 if we are to avoid dangerous effects of global warming.
Wow. Whether or not we get to garden with him, I want to visit his place to see how it's done. Or maybe have him come by our place for an audit. I would repay him with a meal, except it would probably be far below his ethical standards.

Friday, May 08, 2009

We also both have glasses and similar facial hair

There are two Asians in the department here. Today in a workshop, a visiting professor referred me by the name of the other one.

Slightly related note, I'm thinking of adding this as a note to all my papers.

When black people adopt white kids

This is what you get:
would-be heroes come up to [white girl] Katie in the cereal aisle and ask, "Are you OK?"—even though [black mom] Terri is standing right there.
And so on.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Greening Palestine

A "Green Building conference in the West Bank"? Seriously:
Scientists on the Al Quds faculty were already running a project treating university wastewater to make it drinking quality and then pumping it around campus for irrigation.
That is cool. If only university campuses over here could be so advanced.

This is basically a double-barreled feel-good story for me. But:
To be frank, today’s exhibition will never make the headlines of the Western media. Where’s the thrill in optimism in a region that for centuries could be relied upon instead for conflict? But I’ve seen it with my own eyes. A new generation of youth is preparing to make Palestine a greener place to live. In two days on campus, no one ever asked my religion. When it comes to caring for the planet, it did not seem to matter.

Friday, May 01, 2009


I've helped set up a blog for this student group I've been working with the past few months: the Southside Solidarity Network.

Here's one of the things we've done recently. Last Wednesday we went down to Springfield, the state capitol, to talk to politicians. (Well, OK, I myself just went down to be part of the crowd behind the people talking to the politicians.)

We went down on a bus with SOUL, one group of many which converged on the capitol on the same day. Counting all the various groups together, there were about 1000 people in all. The main issue uniting all the groups was a campaign to change the state's taxation schemes: to increase the state income tax rate, and make it more progressive. (The Governor is already on board with some such plan, though it naturally has many enemies.)

Here's the problem that this crowd was hoping to address. State taxes are unfair: because income taxes are low and flat, while sales taxes are higher, the poor in Illinois pay nearly 13% of their income in state taxes, while the rich pay under 5%. You don't need to be anywhere in particular on the political spectrum to admit that that is a disproportionate tax burden on the poor. In addition, state revenue is too low--there is an enormous structural deficit--which either means cutting basic services or raising more revenue. But there needs to be more funding of services at the state level, not less.

For example (and this was another issue we brought to Springfield): Illinois consistently ranks either the lowest or one of the lowest in terms of funding equity for education--the disparity is five-to-one between the best and worst funded kids in the state. How does this happen? In the US, federal funding for education is low, and state funding varies widely. If you live in a state with low state funding (like Illinois, one of the worst), the remaining funding burden falls on property taxes. And then you have to hope your parents and their neighbours have expensive homes. If not, you might be stuck with crumbling schools and ancient books; maybe you will have to share those books. At a rally we heard from a student who had a number of head-shaking anecdotes like that to tell about her school, but this is what stuck out at me the most: she had entered her highschool in a freshman class of over a 1000; now, as a senior, her class numbers in the 500s. (Probably a fair few of those dropouts have already ended up behind bars, which American taxpayers are evidently much happier to pay for. But I digress.)

Other issues our group pushed included a public rail proposal, and a green jobs bill.

While we there, we saw a number of professional lobbyists. Some of them looked at us weird, like we were getting in the way of their business; at times it seemed like they were purposefully trying to get in the way of ours. Some of us briefly debated the wisdom of pushing them down / over various parts of the building -- we decided against it.

Here are some pictures.