I went to a talk by John Ehrenfeld on sustainability, and how sustainability differs from sustainable development. He says that reason, science and technology got us into this mess, and can't entirely get us out. Green technology for sure won't be enough, and tinkering with the tax code and regulatory system probably won't either. We need to change the way we relate to the world, each other and ourselves.
But does his critique really need to be that broad? Is it really "reason" and "science" that are problems (because they lead to objectifying and dominating nature and so on), or just the way they're used in the service of our current hierarchies of power? Take economics for example. Theoretical economists often say things like "trade helps everybody" and "inflation needs to be controlled" that translate into real suffering for real people. This is taken as evidence that economics is an amoral field ("can calculate the cost of everything and the value of nothing"). In reality economics can be used to figure out (say) how to help the poor, and some people do use it that way, but the people who wield power use it to hold onto their own power. Later in the day I heard a talk about how communication technology could be used either to empower or to entertain all depending on how we use the technology.
Maybe this doesn't clash with what Ehrenfeld said, or maybe he'd claim that since these technologies are alienating, they naturally lend themselves to being exploited in that way. Either way, the anarcho-Marxist approach of blaming everything on hierarchies and power relations seems more apropos. You can defend the environment with completely human-centered and scientific reasoning with the "future generations" argument (i.e. we should preserve nature because it will benefit future humans, rather than rejecting the entire anthropocentric cost-benefit framework that both this claim and status quo environmental exploitation are based on). Ehrenfeld would say that this logic isn't enough without breaking our addictive emotional patterns; a Marxist would say this logic isn't enough as long as those in power have no incentive to follow it. So maybe Ehrenfeld's way is slightly more concrete, even if it sounds more wishy-washy.
Addendum: After the talk, I was feeling down, so I bought some $100 headphones.
7/17/05 update: A recent NYT article on hybrid cars gives an argument why technology won't save us:
The two-miles-per-gallon increase over the V-6, about 8 percent, is still significant... But 8 percent is not in the range that would make a substantial dent in American oil consumption. If every car in the country were converted to a hybrid with that improved mileage, the gain would be swallowed up in three to four years by growth in driving demand.On the other hand, economics is also a technology...
Mr. Buford said he got just what he wanted from the Accord, a hybrid with no sacrifices. "I wasn't prepared to give up anything to 'go green' - not performance, amenities, or space," he said.
A terrible last day of SAT teaching. The weather was beautiful and the students really didn't want to be there, and I was annoyed since this was something that I interrupted other plans to do entirely for them, and they were treating me like I was some teacher assigned to babysit them. High school teaches such terrible lessons about initiative. (7/14/05 update: Could be just American schools.).
Plus, I had little patience for the "I don't understand when you do it with variables. Let me do the problem with numbers." ridiculousness. Of course, this is just because their HS math teacher doesn't know any math either. In Romania they do Putnam-level problems in 10th grade.
"Powers of Darkness" was amazing, esp. for an MIT production! I should read get around to reading it now...
After a few days of increasing stress, I did an hour-long meditation class and then went rock-climbing at the MIT bouldering wall, both with Ilya.
Meditation: Normally I'm pretty skeptical of this sort of thing, and tend to note with ironic glee that the people who talk most about karma and balancing themselves and whatnot are usually the most unbalanced. But my standard "ignore" method of dealing with stress had been failing, and paying $5 to sit (or slowly walk) for an hour was really effective. I completely failed at meditation (its goal being to clear your mind of thoughts and focus on a sensation, like breathing); my mind was buzzing with thoughts the entire time, many of which were more imaginative than my dreams are. Still, even this sitting and thinking is something that I need to occasionally take time to do.
Rock climbing: Really hard. Or at least Ilya and I are really bad at it. Either way, a lot of fun.
The front page of the Boston Metro was filled with a big, ugly photo of Moqtada Sadr with the caption: "The most evil man in Iraq: Go Get Him!"
Look, folks. I try, sometimes, to identify with the blue collar Boston mindset that surrounds my little island of geeky libertarians, even if I only encounter it while waiting in line for an eggplant sub at Yoni's "God Loves America" food truck.
But can you try to meet me halfway?
I've been to three talks in the last two days, each of which was ostensibly in my field, and each of which serving mainly to teach me how little I know about things. Sean Hallgren talked about a pure math topic (finding the unit group of a number field), Ken Brown talked about something from theoretical physics (anyons in BECs) and Ike Chuang talked about experimental physics (ion traps).
I guess I can multiply two-by-two matrices and that'll have to be good enough for now.
I went to Newburyport today to try to get people to (as I pleaded verbatim a million times) "support same-sex marriages by signing a postcard" which we would then deliver to their legislators. I was there with a gay guy, Dan, and a straight girl, Geeta.
A lot of people were supportive, but there were a number of reactions that pissed me off. Primary among them is the "this isn't my problem" reaction. As though during civil rights, white Protestant men didn't need to worry about supporting the movement. Clearly only an asshole would say this (on a side note, Watermelon Man is an awesome movie), but gender/sexual orientation stuff is even more absurd than race because there's likely to be someone in your family who's affected, not to mention the heavy costs that straights incur from rigid gender lines - arguably worse than the psychic costs borne by whites engaged in colonialism and racism.
The obvious corollary to "oh, I'm straight, so I don't give a shit" is "you must be gay if you're out collecting signatures for this." This was mostly annoying because it was related to the "not my problem" attitude, although I guess it was mildly eye-opening to experience a little taste of discrimation [this was expanded in 2005 from very sketchy notes written in 2004, so the emotions aren't so fresh any more.] (Amusing interchange: at a demonstration in front of the State House, one counter-demonstrator had a sign saying "Gay marriage theatens children" and I yelled at him "People like you threaten my children!" and he yelled "you can't have kids because you're a homo!" and I yelled "no I'm not!" but it felt way more like middle school than a critique of his narrow world-view and all its ideological baggage.) What was particularly funny about everyone imagining that I was gay came at the end of the day when we left downtown Newburyport and went to a supermarket in a strip mall, where there were actually many more people. People went through a narrow area and we were kind of tired by then, so we'd take turns collecting signatures one at a time. However, it didn't work so well when Geeta was collecting them, because she'd say "would you like to support gay marriage?" and their eyes would naturally go to me and Dan, standing by the side trying to look unobtrusive, and they'd immediately assume we were a gay couple that just wanted to get married like anyone else, if only they'd sign Geeta's postcard. It was funny, but they'd get weirded out by this - I bet if Dan and I were girls it would've worked.
I read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich a few days ago. She's written a lot for Time and Z magazine (and The New Yorker, I thought too, but maybe I just imagined that) in the past. In Nickel and Dimed, she goes "undercover" into the side of America experienced by the poor. Specifically, she tries in three different places to survive on the wages from entry-level jobs while starting with only her car, some clothes and about $1000.
Her descriptions of poverty in America shouldn't be surprising, but I found them pretty jarring. Sometimes it's hard to imagine why low-wage workers don't demand better conditions, but she does a compelling job of explaining how good corporations are at wearing down their employees and discouraging them from speaking up or taking risks. (A lot of this reminded me of high school.) This partially explains why wages are often low even in tight labor markets; employees don't have the time, energy or financial independence to look for other jobs. Also, grad school sometimes tricks us into thinking that a little poverty isn't that bad. The problem is when you don't have the security deposit for an apartment, you need to pay a lot for a hotel. Or your lack of health insurance can cause all sorts of horrible problems. Or your work is so draining (many people have to take two full-time jobs and/or have long commutes) it leaves little time to get the rest of your life in order. [7/14/05 update: Likewise giving anti-retroviral drugs to AIDS patients in Africa is of limited help if they don't have enough food to eat.] In the end, it makes the idea of lifting yourself out of poverty through hard work seem as naive as, say, getting a lot of reading done in prison where there aren't distractions.
What I found really interesting about the book, though, was the very fact of its existence as a description of American poverty addressed towards Americans with money. The book is billed as investigative journalism, but really it's more like anthropology. The star researcher leaves the lecture circuit behind to go live among the natives, get their trust, learn their ways and translate their discourse into commercial and academic success. One point of the book that this reinforces is how invisible the poor are to the middle and upper classes (and even to each other - she writes compellingly about how poor people never see anyone like them in popular culture and fail to realize how widespread their condition is).
The anthropological style of the book also hints at the enormous differences between how poor and rich people think and perceive the world. The narrator keeps reminding herself and the reader that she doesn't really belong, that's she's actually sneaking off to make mortgage payments and think subversive thoughts while remaining literally obedient to the strictures of her "experiment." She even does some union organizing to relieve the tedium and hopelessness of working at Wal-mart. This ironic distance from the way a real poor person would write furthers another point of the book, which is that the poor inhabit an America radically different from our bourgeois version. (Maybe this isn't so different from the last point. I need to figure out where I'm going with these arguments. Plus, this whole thing has probably been written before in a million freshman comp essays.)
It'd be interesting to compare this with, say, Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, another book about American poverty (among other things). Manchild moves in the opposite direction, from poverty to the middle class, and is dramatic (there's heroin, prostitutes, gangs, etc.) as opposed to the crushing banality of Nickel and Dimed. Also, the intended audience of Manchild is probably pretty different.
This is pretty rambling, but my point is that the narrator is ironically distanced from actual poverty because of her audience, language and the breaks in the narrative when she starts talking like someone involved in policy. The reality of American poverty is only inferred from these gaps and inconsistencies in the narrative which demonstrate how truly invisible it is to "people like us" and how radically different it is. Is this the Lacanian Real? I'm not sure, but maybe a better analogy is that it's like the thoughts you have when you've been on your feet washing dishes for 16 hours and you're too tired to think.
The Iraq on the Record report, prepared at the request of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, is a comprehensive examination of the statements made by the five Administration officials most responsible for providing public information and shaping public opinion on Iraq: President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.http://www.house.gov/reform/min/features/iraq_on_the_record/
3/16/04: A photo tour of Chernobyl.
Old stuff from Spring 2003.
Don't use the wrong words in your AIDS grant. ["Certain Words Can Trip Up AIDS Grants, Scientists Say" NYT, Apr 18, 2003.] Sorry about the lack of link, but here are the first two paragraphs:
Scientists who study AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases say they have been warned by federal health officials that their research may come under unusual scrutiny by the Department of Health and Human Services or by members of Congress, because the topics are politically controversial.I like how the automatic nature of the screening is an important piece of this story.
The scientists, who spoke on condition they not be identified, say they have been advised they can avoid unfavorable attention by keeping certain "key words" out of their applications for grants from the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those words include "sex workers," "men who sleep with men," "anal sex" and "needle exchange," the scientists said.
Afghanistan: the Taliban's smiling face, March 2003 http://rawa.false.net/smiling.htm
It seems the only time US-UK troops needed to wear their chemical
warfare suits was when recovering a body from a friendly fire incident
to protect themselves from the radiation given off by US depleted
uranium ordnance -- which, of course, the Pentagon claims is
Audrey Gillian, "'I never want to hear that sound again': Five British soldiers have died under 'friendly fire'" Guardian, 3/31/03, p. 3.