Walking in Lower Lawrenceville

I took a nice long walk in the neighborhood today, and saw some pretty things. (See captions.)

Fixing up my house

Two years ago, I purchased an old house in the reinvigorated neighborhood of Lower Lawrencville in Pittsburgh.

I got it for a song, but it needed some love. Which was perfect because I wanted a project, but little did I know that it was really a few dozen.

After ripping out multiple layers of crusty carpeting, which had been piled over decades of rental use, I refinished the original pine floors.

My next project would be somewhat more apparent, and naturally, far more expensive.

Many of the houses in my area of the neighborhood are old clapboard houses. Most were built sometime in the 1880s, and over the years had been deformed by aluminum siding, peculiar window replacements, and additions. My house was no exception, and so I resolved to bring back some of its original character.

The bulk of the work involved removing the aluminum clad and any rotten clapboards. What original clapboard remained would be repaired and sanded, while any missing pieces would need to be newly milled.

Removing the aluminum siding was by far the most stressful part. No one knew what was underneath. The original wood siding could have been in mint condition, or completely missing. Thankfully, only about twenty percent of the clapboard needed to be replaced. The majority of the original 1889 clapboard could be restored.

Three months and twenty-five thousand dollars later:


Yard side


Alley side? Front? Who knows?


Two places for murals!

Much improved, I think.

Now onward to ten thousand more projects, including:

  • Kitchen and bathroom renovation
  • Remove layers of tile and carpeting on third floor, and refinish the pine
  • Restore some missing trim work

It never ends.

Life-changing passwords

Mauricio Estrella on how a password changed his life:

My password reminded me that I shouldn’t let myself be victim of my recent break up, and that I’m strong enough to do something about it.

My password became: “Forgive@h3r” […]

During the rest of week, I had to type this password several times a day. Each time my computer would lock. Each time my screensaver with her photo would appear. Each time I would come back from eating lunch alone.

In my mind, I went with the mantra that I didn’t type a password. In my mind, I was reminding myself to “Forgive her”. […]

In its simplest form, a password enables you to get somewhere, in your digital world. Say, to copy a file, to unlock a computer, to email somebody. This feeling of micro achievements, this thought of ‘my mantra helps me to get things done’ can build up a momentum that motivates you to stay focused on achieving your monthly goals. It’s a tiny habit that has the power to transform.

The death of activism?

From @Cordeliers:

That the ambitious young bloggers of the hipster left invariably turn to boosting US imperialism isn’t surprising when you consider that capitalism literally has no use for them apart from producing propaganda or entertainment journalism.

They can’t build a bridge, manage a workforce, fix a refrigerator, or cut a deal.

Reproducing bourgeois ideology, typically in the form of snarky hot takes, is the only thing they’re equipped to do that anyone is prepared to pay for.

I think this is rather overstated, but it does help to explain the increasingly vacuous armchair discussions about social justice that pervade the internet. Which I’ve been a part of, admittedly.

Many privileged folks want the appearance of solidarity and social awareness, but lacking significant knowledge and experience, merely reproduce counterproductive but appealing platitudes. In substance, the platitudes are little different from the kind you find in a social studies textbook, though they’re considerably more edgy.

When I was younger, I was fairly involved in activism, but I’ve since reverted to donating money to groups that do important work. I have no illusions that my commentary or money constitutes activism of any significance, but I prefer to direct my energy toward areas where I can make a little impact.

I know that I can’t make any impact by directly participating in contemporary activism, so I donate a little money here and there. Directly participating in this climate is incredibly stressful to me, and it’s just not in my constitution. I’m not particularly proud of this fact, but as far as I can tell, it’s unavoidably true.

There are all sorts of possible reasons behind this. One reason that I can no longer ignore is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny the truth behind right-wing accusations of political correctness, partisan hackery, poisonous identity politics, and hypocrisy among the so-called left.

Even as I write that, I feel dirty for aligning myself with right-wing talking points on this one specific issue, even if I realize cognitively that this is nonsense and suggests nothing at all. To me, this is a pretty clear indication of my internalized partisanship, and it makes me feel awful.

I suspect I’m not alone in all this. And it breaks my heart to think that many otherwise sympathetic folks may be dissuaded from actively getting involved with important issues because they don’t want to engage with self-righteous loudmouths. It breaks my heart, because objectively that’s an awful reason not to directly participate.

On the other hand, each of us has a limited reservoir of emotional energy, and it’s naïve to believe that one’s tactics, if they merit the term, don’t influence whether others participate.

I think many of us could stand to reflect on the purpose of activism, which seems to include concretely helping others, bringing attention to injustice, and convincing others of a particular issue’s significance.

But when I see cottage industries of self-styled activists, who seem to confuse activism with the practice of relatively privileged folks merely expressing their undirected anger on behalf of oppressed people — a fairly plain sign of self-absorption — I can’t help but worry about our future prospects in bending the “arc of the moral universe” toward justice.

I’m absolutely certain that there are real activists out there. People doing hard, meaningful, impactful work. They need our support, our money, and our participation. And perhaps there are more of them than ever before. Still, I think it’s becoming harder to find them, but I resolve to try harder.

Unsavory paper cups

If anything is sure to provoke ire, it’s a paper cup at Starbucks.

Earlier this year, Starbucks got flak for its hokey, but mildly gutsy, policy of writing “Race Together” on their coffee cups. Presumably, the intention was to spur difficult conversations on race, but I’m not entirely sure what the phrase even means. Nevertheless, people didn’t like it, so they stopped writing the meaningless phrase on their cups.

Now they’re under attack for distributing red cups for the holiday. They’re insufficiently Jesus-y, you see.

But I have to tell you, if we’re looking for a cultural bellwether, we can probably do a little bit better than a paper cup. On the other hand, if a company mentioning race, or failing to mention the Jesus man, on its cups really burns folks — well, then, maybe it does say something about us.

For my part, though, I think these are completely manufactured or anecdotal reports that have little to no actual practical value whatsoever, and seem crafted to make each of us believe that our neighbors are fucking lunatics and really need to chill out and maybe replace their latte with a bourbon.

And even if our neighbors are indeed fucking lunatics, you have to agree that their outrage is pretty desperate. They deserve our pity. If they exist.

Accidentally participate actively

Elizabeth Urello on accidentally participating:

The mildest form of accidental participation is when you head out to run an errand hoping not to run into anyone you know, and you run into someone you know. […]

However, the weirdest, most dreaded kind of accidental participation is when you go to do something relatively pedestrian and solitary […] And before you know it, you are somehow in the middle of the hottest rave/circus performance/battle of the bands ever to go down in a coffee shop at 4:00pm on a Tuesday afternoon and you have no idea how this happened or how to get out of it. […]

This has happened so often over the years that at this point, I’m afraid to leave the house. I work from home and a lot of my coworkers relocate throughout the day and work from coffee shops and parks and bars, and sometimes I want to do that too, but I worry that wherever I end up, I’ll somehow find myself accidentally participating in some massive social blowout, and I won’t be able to escape.

My own approach is to accidentally participate actively. The only thing worse than a happenstance gala is one that I didn’t completely fuck up from the inside.

Emotional correctness

Sally Kohn on “emotional correctness”:

[F]or decades, we’ve been focused on political correctness, but what matters more is emotional correctness.

Let me give you a small example. I don’t care if you call me a dyke. I really don’t. I care about two things. One, I care that you spell it right. Just quick refresher, it’s D-Y-K-E. You’d totally be surprised.

And second, I don’t care about the word, I care about how you use it. Are you being friendly? Are you just being naive? Or do you really want to hurt me personally? Emotional correctness is the tone, the feeling, how we say what we say, the respect and compassion we show one another.

And what I’ve realized is that political persuasion doesn’t begin with ideas or facts or data. Political persuasion begins with being emotionally correct.

We spend so much time talking past each other and not enough time talking through our disagreements, and if we can start to find compassion for one another, then we have a shot at building common ground.

Ashley Madison makes me want to vomit profusely

In New York Magazine, Heather Havrilesky argues that the Ashley Madison hack should scare us. After all, as she says, “private information that was stolen by criminals is now being used by the public to shame and punish individuals who assumed that their information would remain private”, and that does sound mighty scary.

It’s difficult, however, to overlook the assumption of privacy that those folks made. How does that assumption compare to one’s natural assumption that their partner wouldn’t, you know, betray their trust? Or the assumption that one’s partner wouldn’t betray their trust repeatedly and consciously, and so deliberately and with such premeditation as to subscribe to an online service that facilitates the mass erosion of such trust? And finally, isn’t it conceivable that trusting a company that destroys trust on a wholesale level is… mildly foolish?

Yes, it’s pretty much impossible for me to overlook the fact that a tremendous amount of justice has been done, and that the irony is something to revere. It’s not merely that cheaters have been exposed. This has nothing to do with regrettable moments of irresistible passion or whatever nonsense, or consensual polyamorous relationships, or people who allow their partners to fuck around. The point of the site is to connect cowardly and unscrupulous people to one another, so they can jointly wreck the trust of their partners and destroy any notion that relationships should be equitable and consensual. And have fun while doing so.

Ashley Madison’s motto is “Life is short. Have an affair.”

A fun drinking game? Say anything you want after the phrase “life is short”, and the most humorous one earns a drink.

  • Life is short. Lop off a limb!
  • Life is short. Jump out a fucking window!
  • Life is short. Make it even shorter! Fuck it!

Basically, “life is short” is a stupid person’s attempt at rationalization, not unlike YOLO.

Havrilesky would apparently admonish me as one of those people who have “never been shy about imposing their highly subjective views and principles on one another’s private lives — nor have they hesitated to punish the slightest variation in behavior, the slightest straying from the so-called norm.”


As far as I can tell, it’s virtually a tautology that the erosion of trust… is a bad thing. I mean, maybe it isn’t for sociopaths. But most people who betray someone’s trust come to feel bad about it. I’ve got to imagine that the principle that it’s wrong to fuck your partner over is the closest thing we’ve got to a moral universal. Maybe a lot of people commit that wrong, but it’s still wrong.

But when you join an online community to revel in it, you’ve really taken yourself to a new level. You’re saying that you know it’s wrong and just don’t give a fuck.

So, yes. Privacy is important. People have rights. And the obvious answer to rhetorical questions, like “Do we want our public servants targeting citizens by using information gained through criminal means?”, is no.

But I’ll weep for those who honor privacy and rights, and find theirs violated, before shedding a single tear for those who violate such expectations of others and then cry foul when they’re subjected to similar treatment.

Update: Annalee Newitz from Gizmodo reports that the data suggests that “Ashley Madison is a site where tens of millions of men write mail, chat, and spend money for women who aren’t there.” My opinion holds, but now this whole ordeal seems even more pathological and sad.

W. B. Yeats

When Helen Lived

We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair
Or noisy, insolent, sport,
Beauty that we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen walked with her boy,
Had given but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest.

The Young Man’s Song

I whispered, ‘I am too young,’
And then, ‘I am old enough’;
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
‘Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair,’
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

Oh, love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away,
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

Vote for Bernie

A couple weeks ago, the former U.S. Representative Barney Frank, favorite of progressive Democrats, lashed out at Bernie Sanders. In Politico, Frank made the same vacuous argument that establishment Democrats have made against Ralph Nader, and other people of some integrity, for years.

The argument holds that the opposition candidate’s election would be so disastrous that we should pinch our noses and vote for the lesser of two evils. It’s an arrogant argument that presupposes that “viable” candidates need not earn our votes. Rather, they deserve our votes so long as they are less terrible than the opposition.

The “viable” candidate in Frank’s view happens to be a militaristic opportunist. She who shall not be named is a vociferous supporter of Israeli aggressiona religious lunatic on same-sex marriage (when convenient), and a pet of finance. So much for “less terrible”.

Obsequiously voting for such a candidate, in spite of one’s purported liberalism, is a simple act of self-flagellation. And it may rest on a false assumption of Sanders’ unviability. A recent CNN poll has support for Sanders skyrocketing, while support for the other candidate has taken a nosedive.

So even if you’d vote against your conscience for some reason, and merely vote with the tide, you might think again about who you’ll support.

Support Bernie Sanders and learn more about the issues.

Being good enough

When I think of where I’d like to be in five or ten years, in terms of my knowledge and my career, I don’t think of anything very specific. In fact, I’ve never really said to myself, “Above all else, I would like to become an expert on X or be a Y.” On the contrary, when I reflect on my life so far, I become aware of just how strongly I am guided by my desire to be “good enough”.

To be clear, this post isn’t an ode to mediocrity or laziness — though there’s much to say in favor of these — rather it’s a defense of the generalist in an era of specialists.

It’s a peculiar fact that we live in a world where so many work so hard to become specialized in ever narrower domains. This fact is often justified by the belief that our knowledge can only be expanded by a dedicated army working hard at the fringes. But while I think there’s some truth to this picture, particularly in certain domains, it’s incomplete. At the bottom, it’s perhaps a view of knowledge inspired by military invasion and conquest.

The second, often forgotten, means by which we expand our knowledge is synthesis. Paradigm shifts in areas of knowledge are not the product of minor changes at the outskirts of our knowledge, and therefore seem unlikely to be effected by hyper-specialists. Rather such “revolutions” consist in the refactoring of our knowledge, something that can only be performed by groups of people acquainted with necessary bits across several areas. People who are “good enough” in a variety of fields.

Scientists are not the only ones who can apply these lessons to their work. Virtually every domain of human inquiry has seen dramatic advancement over the past couple centuries. And as these domains advance, it’s becoming easier than ever to become “good enough” in many fields.

This last part may appear counterintuitive. If our knowledge has advanced over many years, how can it be that there is less to learn in order to become competent? Shouldn’t one have to learn more?

While the notion may be true enough for some fields, it seems to me that it’s completely false for most areas of inquiry. The growth in what we know doesn’t resemble the pouring of fluid into a bucket, but something more akin to completing a jigsaw puzzle. The vast majority of what we once believed is false, and no doubt much of what we “know” now is also false.

When we advance in our knowledge, we slash and burn the false knowledge that has accumulated, and leave open meadows that will one day become overrun with false knowledge yet again (though we hope there will also be some truth interspersed). This suggests that even the most brilliant minds are (and have always been) polluted with false knowledge. Naturally, all this occupies much of their efforts, and consumes much of their attention.

This seems a pessimistic take, but there’s reason to be optimistic. As human knowledge has progressed, we expect that the total quantity of false knowledge is steadily diminishing. And as such, there is somewhat less nonsense around to hamper one’s efforts.

As a consequence, being “good enough” today is quite different from what it was in the past. And the person who is “good enough” these days seems quite likely to have been regarded as a prodigy in the past.

It seems wasteful to not take advantage of our improved knowledge and our streamlined process of learning. With so much of the labor of knowledge performed for us, it seems one ought to spend twenty percent of their time to acquire eighty percent of the most essential knowledge in a field, and to do so in as many different fields as possible.

To become “good enough” across the board, to synthesize, and to discover.

Viva la MetaFilter

With the game of musical chairs taking place at Reddit, there has been new discussion about the many controversies involving Reddit, and the unsavory character of its community.

I don’t spend much time there. Partly because I’m not interested in what’s discussed for a given topic — it’s somewhat too LOL-centric for me — and partly because opinion is cheap.

I spend more time at MetaFilter, a community that’s been around since 1999, and is shockingly free of jerks. In my experience, the people there are polite, and the topics are unique. The discussion doesn’t surround memes and links that have circled around the web a million times over. There’s even a chance you might find something genuinely new and interesting.

Give MetaFilter a try, and if you like it, send them a few bucks.

Ideology is the enemy

In the course of answering how philosophy can make itself more relevant, Nancy Bauer writes:

Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.

The best philosophy teachers are the ones who are able to model this virtue. They show their students, à la Socrates in at least the early Platonic dialogues, how the right kind of conversation can bring to consciousness the utter preposterousness of something that one has always taken for granted and then how to survive finding oneself turned around in one’s shoes. Epistemic humility sometimes takes the form of humbleness, but not always. It can be intensely empowering for people who have always assumed that the systematically poor way the world treats them is fundamentally the way they deserve to be treated.

The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about How Things Are. It models the virtues of not knowing what one thought one knew. The natural home of philosophy is in the agora, not the ivory tower. The question is whether the academy can bear to confront that truth.

Defend your privacy

Someone posed the question, “Should I live my life as if I am entitled to privacy?“, on MetaFilter. They mused:

Should I just give up on the idea that a normal person is entitled to privacy? Should I stop speaking my real thoughts? If I tell a friend privately that I thought some restaurant served bad food, should I be afraid of repercussions? And should a restaurant be afraid of what I say in a private conversation? How should we live our lives? How should I live mine?

Unfortunately, the responses in the thread seem pretty defeatist to me. Aside from someone offering mental health advice, here’s a few excerpts from the replies:

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” is really a good rule, for privacy reasons and other reasons.

Everyone is entitled to [privacy], and you should not have to live in fear that you will lose it.

When you deliberately share things with people, though, they can no longer safely be called private, particularly if you share them in a public place, which is ipso facto not private.

I try to never say something to one person that I wouldn’t want the world to hear.

In addition to defeatist, I think these replies are just profoundly sad. I’m not angry about it; I just feel sadness.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to believe you can’t share intimate thoughts with anyone. To never say anything that leaves you vulnerable, or that you’re unsure about. It seems like a truly lonely way to live, and I think rejecting the notion is frankly necessary if you wish to live a full life.

What does it mean to say that you’re entitled to privacy, but that merely sharing with others is to relinquish that privacy? Doesn’t that amount to saying that the only privacy you can expect is the privacy of your own thoughts? Doesn’t seem very generous to me.

And don’t get me started on the if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all nonsense. No one has ever actually believed this. People have feelings — positive and otherwise — and no one succeeds in suppressing them in the end.

For my part, I try to be as honest as possible. I’d even say I aspire to radical honesty, even if I fail in this more often than I’d like to admit. And if something I think is unnecessarily hurtful to others, maybe I’ll work on how I think about things.

Like many people, I think we’re living in a time where our basic right to privacy is under attack. And what’s needed now more than ever is for us to assert and exercise this right. If someone invades your privacy, or betrays your confidence, stick to your guns. If it’s a significant offense, cut them out of your life, and protect yourself from losing a part of yourself and growing distrustful. And if someone mentions, or confronts you with, information that’s the result from an invasion of privacy, don’t acknowledge or concede it. Treat it as fruit of the poisonous tree, which it most assuredly is.

All this is hard to practice, but it’s always good to try. And retaining our privacy demands it.