What am I up to now?

September 25, 2022

May, 2021

I’ve been living in Freetown, Sierra Leone, since January. Life here is idyllic, if your definition of idyllic allows for daily power outages, the occasional dog bite, and a rooster outside your window at 4:50am.
This is Dennis. It’s not clear why Dennis lives here, as we have no chickens.
My favorite things about this city are the fresh pineapple, the view from my balcony the morning after a rainstorm, and the row of bars along the beach.

Contents

  1. Reading
  2. Listening
  3. Writing
  4. Eating


Reading

Books which I enjoyed this month

How to talk about books you haven’t read, by Pierre Bayard.

One of Bayard’s first strikes in favor of not-reading is the observation that reading and not-reading are approximately equivalent. This isn’t only a post-modern turn of phrase: even if I keep up my current rate of 3.5 books per week for the next sixty years,Only possible because internet in Sierra Leone costs enough to make Netflix et. al prohibitive. I will barely finish 10,000 books. There is no practical difference between reading 0%, and 0.005%, of all the books ever written.

There are many different ways to not-read, however, and Bayard surveys a half dozen of them with examples from books which he hasn’t read.And one movie — Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day provides the structure for one chapter on reading to impress women. One form of not-reading is to force fit a book into your worldview. In excerpts from an anthropological text, an American professor explains the plot of Hamlet to a Tiv village in Nigeria. This does not go well: the villagers cannot distinguish between a ghost and a zombi; they protest that Gertrude’s speedy remarriage is only common senseWho will hoe your farms for you if you have no husband? ; they get bogged down in genealogical details. For their internal versions of Hamlet, it is vitally important to know whether the late King Hamlet and Claudius have the same mother.

When it comes to my own relationship with not reading, this book was a relief. Bayard gives the reader permission to not-read, and ridicules those who insist that the pretense of wide literacy must be upheld. Academics are his favorite target. Bayard tells us about one fictional professor of English who declares with pride, in the course of a party game, that he has never read Hamlet.As the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet is apparently the canonical unread book. Soon after, he “unexpected flunked his review…it’s generally supposed that this was because the English department dared not give tenure to a man who publicly admitted to not having read Hamlet.” Another party guest who was more discrete was offered his position. The author assumes that this new man hasn’t read Hamlet either, but “nobody was asking.”

So are we all deluding ourselves and everyone else when it comes to reading? I’ve included reviews of a half-dozen books here; how many do you suppose I’ve read? Bayard says they all count, and more.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler.

The best novel I’ve read about American slavery. Throughout the book, I wished that this was the type of book we had been assigned in high school. At the end of my copy, there was a critical essay and discussion guide targeted at… high schoolers.

The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, by Bernard Suits.

I love reading lists.Friends have joked that being my friend should come with a syllabus. I haven’t taken this as the criticism it was intended to be. I’ve regularly returned to James Somers’ over the past few months, and this book was the first I read on his recommendation: “Another one of those special books that I read on a whim and that will, I fear, never be read by anyone I recommend it to.” I took this as a challenge.

If philosophy textbooks were written like this, I fear I would have been a philosophy major. This is a silly thing to write, because the most famous philosophy books are written like The Grasshopper. It’s a refutation of Wittgenstein’s assertion that games are indefinable, structured as a socratic dialogue between characters from Aesop’s five-sentence fable.Does anyone have an explanation for why the US government hosts a collection of Aesop’s fables? This one feels especially dystopian. The format provides a lot of the charm, but Suits’ lusory attitude is what made this one of my favorite books of 2021. Unlike philosophy textbooks, the book is hilarious.Like the eponymous character, this is both a feature and a bug. Upon returning from the dead to illustrate a point about the terminal values of game players, the Grasshopper declares that “dying was the most exasperating thing that has happened to me in my entire life.”Pg. 162

In defense of direct action, by Ivar Harding (pseudonym) and How to blow up a pipeline, by Andreas Malm.

When three moral philosophers announced the Journal of Controversial Ideas in Spring 2020, Twitterers predicted a new front in the culture wars. The most interesting and inflammatory essay in the first volumeReleased April 24th. does not, however, light up any particular field of political discourse.There are also several essays, as expected, on gender identity and race. While I can’t comment on the content of those articles, I don’t doubt they qualify for inclusion. Ivar Harding’s In defense of direct action makes a moral argument the use of coercive violence and sabotage by animal rights activists. He builds his case from Huemer’s common sense morality:Huemer, M., 2005, Ethical Intuitionism, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan. 1) violence is permissible to stop the torture of puppies; 2) there is no salient distinction between pigs and puppies; 3) there is no salient distinction between torture and factory farming; therefore 4) violence is permissible to stop the factory farming of pigs. I don’t recommend the paper on its merits, as the moral reasoning is occasionally impreciseFor example, Harding’s analogy between case F4 and F5 ignores morally salient aspects of state authority. Huemer (2013) addresses a similar fallacy. Huemer, M., 2013, The Problem of Political Authority, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan. and the conclusions are lukewarm. Harding does not make the best moral case for direct action by animal rights activists. That case is best made in a book by Andreas Malm which is entirely focused on a different problem.

Malm has street cred. He may be an academic with the Swedish equivalent of tenure, but this is someone who takes his principles seriously. He has trespassed into coal plants in Germany, laid in front of coal trucks, and been arrested in street protests. The most disappointing part of his 2020 book How to blow up a pipeline is that it doesn’t deliver on the titular promise: besides a winking assertion that pipelines are “easily sabotaged” and a reference to successful Nigerian efforts, pipelines shouldn’t feel threatened.

This book is not meant to be an update to The anarchist’s cookbook. It is a moral call to arms for the climate movement: peaceful protest has failed, Malm argues. Or perhaps if it hasn’t failed, it’s too slow to succeed, which amounts to the same thing. He is clear in what he advocates instead: “Here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start: announce and enforce the prohibition…on new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up.”Pg. 67

There is none of Huemer’s intuitionism in Malm’s book. Malm is not making an emotional or common sense argument. Peter Singer is one of the founders of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, but his drowning child thought experiment has no place in Malm’s rhetoric. For Malm, plan A has failed; we knew it had failed a decade ago. What’s taking us so long to get started on plan B?

Despite Harding’s initial intuitionism, in his final section he converges to Malm’s consequentialism: “[A]nimal rights activists must seriously consider whether the short­term gains of coercive direct action can justify its costs. In many cases, I think they cannot. For instance, actions such as writing graffiti, engaging in minor property damage, and issuing anonymous threats to medical researchers are likely to bolster negative sentiments about the animal rights movement without producing substantive countervailing benefits for animals.”Pg. 23

This is quite the concession. Direct action is morally A-OK, Harding originally argued. He went further than Malm, who stops at sabotage, in permitting interpersonal violence. But, confronted with making a final recommendation, he retreats. Reading Harding’s conclusion, and comparing him to Malm, I made excuses for the animal rights activist. Maybe the public backlash to sabotage to protect animals is greater than the backlash to environmental sabotage. Or maybe the peaceful means of advocating for animal rights have not yet been exhausted, as they have by the climate movement. But Harding doesn’t deserve our charity: this retreat is cowardice. In the coming decades, the Animal Liberation Front and its allies will escalate: people will be hurt; people will be imprisoned. Harding, even shielded by anonymity, isn’t willing to stand by the common sense moral case which inevitably leads to those consequences. Everything else is excuses.

For what it’s worth, I think both Harding and Malm are wrong. Neither of their causes is important, urgent, or tractable enough to make terrorism morally permissible. What we gain in reducing emissions or meat consumption would be more-than-offset by the erosion on public safety, rule of law, and social trust.Harding addresses this objection in Section Four. His analogy between civil disobedience and direct action is flawed, however, in ignoring the expected differential effects in favor of the minimum differential effects. His discussion of the acceptance condition for civil disobedience provides support for, at most, blurring the line between protest and direct action. The West is a remarkably low-terror society today: in 1970s America, there were 112 domestic plane hijackings. In 1971 and 1972, there were an average of five terrorist bombings per day in the US. This was also the hey-day of European left-wing bombings and hijackings, and of course the IRA.

Despite our disagreement on what action is permissible, my rejection of terrorism comes from the a similar moral theory to that which Malm applies throughout his book, and which Harding applies in his cowardly conclusion. We only disagree on magnitudes. Given that three people who endorse very different actions agree on a decision framework, where are the activists willing to act on this framework? In other words, why is there so little terrorism?

I don’t know, but I really don’t want to disturb this equilibrium. Both climate activism and animal rights activism are, at their hearts, political causes, and there are many other political causes whose advocates are just as passionate. Once the taboo on violent political acts is weakened, we don’t get to choose who takes advantage. If coal power plants begin to experience sabotage by climate activists, might condo construction sites by NIMBYs? Direct action against water treatment plants which supply fluoride might be next. There are remarkably few terror attacks against abortion providers, for all the passion of anti-abortion activists. There’s no guarantee that only the “good guys” will engage in terrorism, but there’s reason to expect the opposite.

The merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

At some point in my lifetime, no one but Shakespeare scholars and curmudgeons will read him untranslated. I still find it worthwhile to struggle with the language, but not without a bit of help. My favorite resource is Goddard’s The meaning of Shakespeare. For every play I finish, I’ve taken to reading Goddard’s corresponding chapter right afterward.

Some optical illusions
The first time I saw this, it was spinning anti-clockwise. Since someone told me it was an optical illusion, it’s always spun clockwise.
are sticky. Once you get it in your head that you’re seeing one thing, it’s very difficult to consciously switch to the other perspective. Reading Goddard after my first read of The merchant of Venice made me view the play clockwise, and two re-reads so far have been incapable of switching me back. That reflects better on Goddard than Shakespeare, in my opinion, but I might have it backwards.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore, by Robin Sloan.

The whole time I was reading this book, I thought it was science fiction. Only when I went to upload my Kindle highlights did I realize that the plot had not a single science-fictional or fantastical element. It was just a novel. If anything, this a sign that our genre classifications are broken, so I’m still classifying it as science fiction.

The writing reminded me a lot of Cory Doctorow.

Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel.

This is a book about a play, and, on Kindle, the bits of the play were too small for me to read. So I really only read half of this book.

That half which I did read was fantastic, though. The first 90% would have made it one of my favorite “nothing happens” novels, but the last 10% ruined that by everything happening. It’s a book about the holocaust without being about the holocaust. Or maybe it’s just a book about books about the holocaust.

Listening

Once, about 20 minutes into a 36 hour shift at my firehouse, I realized I had left my headphones at home. The next hour felt like this:

Thankfully, later that night we went to a housefire down the block from my parents house, and I was able to drop in and grab a pair of earbuds.After my ambulance was no longer needed. But the prospect of going that long without anything to listen to was not fun.

I brought three pairs of headphones to Freetown, as a precaution. Headphones are available for sale here, of course, but I have unfortunately become an audiophile and a snob.Only in headphones, though. I shocked a French roommate once by putting Kraft singles on my pasta, because it was the only cheese we had. Two of the pairs are still going strong. My wired earbuds lost the treble on the left side in early April, which was a blow. Things will only start to look bad when I’m down to my last pair.

Here are some things I’ve listened to and enjoyed recently.

Live, Nik Bärtsch

I’ve never understood how jazz composers choose the names for some of their pieces. It’s not a universal problem: many standards from The Real Book fit their names perfectly.Desert Air, Black Orpheus, Giant Steps all fit their names perfectly. A short and fascinating history of The Real Book was featured in 99 Percent Invisible recently. But for a lot of “art jazz”, the track names on an album can apparently be randomized. Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil comes to mind, but is definitely not the worst offender. My favorite part of my two trips to Jazz at Lincoln Center was that artists, more often than not, would introduce a piece with their motivation and intuition for it, beyond just the title.

This is just a pet peeve. But I really do appreciate it when artists embrace the absurdity of naming unnameable tracks. Tracks on Nik Bärtsch’s 2012 Live are named like my variables in Python: ever track is entitled “Modul $int”, except for the lead track, “Modul 41_17”. As best the listener can tell, these modules were uploaded directly from the live session to the record label.

The album is complex and funkish without ever being overwhelming. I listened to Live right after listening to Sam Brady Long’s Satie, Dilated, in which Long reconfigures the Gymnopédies at 1/5th speeds.As expected, this was great to fall asleep to. Coming off of that that, I was worried that an album branded as “minimalist Alpine jazz” would be too static or dull. But the minimalism is mostly present in Bärtsch’s keyboard; the backing players, especially Björn Meyer on bass, keep the album flowing quickly.

Nik Bärtsch and his band Ronin are smooth enough to collapse recordings from live performances over three years into something like a single concert. This album made me look forward to live music again.

21, Adele

My association with this album was bus rides to middle school with my good friend Lucas, which is odd because it didn’t come out until we were in high school. Despite its age, the album remains relevant in pop ballads released today. Demi Lovato today sounds a closer to 2011 Adele than 2011 Demi Lovato.

I could sing along to seven of the eleven tracks; this record had shocking radio presence at the time.Who pays attention to this anymore? The aux cord killed the radio star. In Freetown, the hot radio tracks are Down by Jay Sean and something by Hot Chelle Rae. Two late-album tracks which I didn’t remember aged especially well: the funkish “I’ll Be Waiting” and the noir “He Won’t Go”.

Here are some other albums I listened to for the first time this month. I really enjoyed each one; if this makes you think of any recommendations, please send them along!

Civilian, Wye Oak

Good Hope, Dave Holland, Zakir Hussain,My Spotify top artist of 2020. and Chris Potter

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple

Begin Again, Fred Hersch (with the WDR Big Band)

Homecoming: The Live Album, Beyoncé

Soundtrack to Color Out of Space, Colin Stetson

Writing

On my first day as a consultant in 2019, someone joked that I didn’t have to download Microsoft Word because “you’ll always be working in PowerPoint anyway.”After two years of government consulting, I firmly believe at least a third of DC’s economy is generated by people a) making slide decks and b) reading them outloud to other people. On my second day as a consultant, my new boss, the excellent Aschley Schiller, told me that a client had requested we turn a beautiful slide deck into a 50-page report. This was said with a proper amount of regret for the loss of efficiency this transformation would represent.

Now, in a research position suspended between academia and NGOs, I often work in the opposite direction. After weeks of research, data collection, and analysis, we sit down and write. Only after producing a report or working paper can we make the slide decks.

In mid-April, two of my working papers were accepted for presentation at at the American Political Science Association’s meeting in October. My former professor and research advisor S.P. Harish has shepherded me through the process for one of these papers, but I’ll be presenting both of them in Seattle this fall! Over the next few months, I’ll be spending a lot of time getting these two presentations down pat.

Eating

While I was living in India, I had a secret. It’s the kind of secret that will make your Indian friends stop being your friends. I successfully lived in Kolkata, Bangalore, and Lucknow for months with no one ever discovering that I don’t like mango.

I don’t hate mango, per se. It’s fine, I guess. It goes great in smoothies! But I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for the fruit. In Freetown, my ambivalence doesn’t matter, though, because the pineapple here is amazing.

Seriously — I would eat half a pineapple per day. These things are so fresh and so cheap, there’s nothing stopping me … except I am terrible at choosing them. Of the dozen I’ve brought home from one of the roadside stalls, our housekeeper Fatmatah has declared at least half of them unsalvageable. Some of these mistakes are forgiveable, like a slightly off-yellow color. Others are not: yesterday, I missed the fact that the bottom half of a pineapple had the consistency of a water balloon. When I’m particularly desperate, I’ll outsource my retail pineapple shopping to one of my housemates with a demonstrated ability.

Anyone in the pineapple business has it rough; I won’t hold this against them. Pineapples take almost two years to reach maturity, and those leaves are damn pointy. By now, I’m pretty sure that half of the women running fruit stands along western Freetown’s main road recognize me as an easy mark to offload past-ripe produce onto. I’m a willing dupe: I’m still chasing that pineapple high. And at some point I’m going to figure out how to choose a decent one for myself.

What am I up to now? - September 25, 2022 - Joseph Levine