September 2006

2006 09 29
Letter of Reference

(This is Part I of my Pot Smoking Prof Gone Mad series. Other installments:
Part II: Guardian Blog on Hutchinson
Part III: Another young life destroyed by pot smoking prof gone mad
Part IV: Pot smoking prof gone mad accomplishes nothing since 1997)

It had to happen some time. I’ve finally found a subject about which I’m actually qualified to write.

Anne tipped me off to this Boing Boing post about a pot smoking professor at the University of Florida. It sounds as if the guy was funny, but basically wasting everyone’s time. The post is updated with a reader reaction from a certain Alanna relating her experience with a pot smoking professor at the University of Toronto:

I had another baked professor for first-year philosophy: Link. From the Toronto Star’s article, I now understand why he was so hard to follow in lectures; he smokes pot with a medical clearance from the government. I’m not sure how it can be that he’s just allowed to lecture whilst high. One of the questions on our term test involved correlating Plato with an excerpt of lyrics from one of the prof’s favourite reggae songs.

I expect better from Boing Boing. No prof is going to satisfy everyone, and it sounds as if Alanna didn’t benefit from her class with Doug Hutchinson, but she has no good reason to think that pot has anything to do with it. Since when is baseless speculation about the effect of someone’s medication on his teaching worth mentioning? The answer is: only when the medication in question is pot, in which case we apparently have a license to be grossly insensitive and careless. At the very least Boing Boing might also publish Hutchinson’s own words on the subject, which I quote in their entirety at the end of this post in case the link rots.

I want to say something about Doug Hutchinson, so that at least inquiring googlers will have some point of comparison with Alanna’s. I am a former student of Doug’s. I took his first year philosophy class too, a long time ago. I loved it. It confirmed for me that I wanted to go on to study philosophy, and helped move me toward Ancient philosophy specifically. Later on, I took a fourth year seminar on Socrates, which I still remember fondly. I also undertook a semester long study with Doug the next year (which turned into an informal paper we wrote, and I delivered, later on at a conference in Padua and Venice dedicated to our project). He gave me careful, considered, and thoughtful advice about graduate school, and a lot of valuable assistance getting in. We have kept in touch, off and on, in the years since then.

Doug Hutchinson is without question the most gifted teacher I have ever encountered in my life. Rather than stretch out an account with anecdotes, let me just say that I have met other professors who care very much about teaching, but never someone as thoughtful about pedagogy. Doug has an uncommonly clear idea not just of the philosophical material he’s teaching, but also of the more general intellectual skills he is teaching his students to bring to bear on the material. I learned more from him than anyone else about how to attack an intellectual problem in general, how to think though it clearly and from the ground up. When I’m stuck with something, I really do still sometimes step back and try to imagine how he would approach it.

As for his research, it’s also solid. In addition to a book, a number of papers, and an important role in putting together the complete edition of Plato’s works (as well as translating some of the works in it), he has recently published, with Monte Ransome Johnson, an extremely important paper on Aristotle’s Protrepticus which is the most important thing to appear on the work in the last 50 years, and which I expect to be a real spur to further research on this area of Aristotle’s thought. (I’ve mentioned this before.) In the past year, I have also seen two papers in draft which Doug asked me to comment on. They’re both serious and important contributions to scholarship.

All of this – the excellence in teaching and the solid record of scholarship – are in spite of a serious medical condition, and, if we are willing to listen to him, partly thanks to marijuana. Doug does what a professor should do, and he does it very well.

Anyway, here’s what Doug has to say for himself:

Greetings, philosophers. I thought I should let you know that as of this week our university has a professor who smokes marijuana openly on campus, legally, and with workplace accommodation for his need to use this remedy.

I am that professor.

I feel it falls to me to let you know this state of affairs in the proper terms so that the inevitable rumours and possible slanders that arise can be ignored or challenged by you, my peers and fellow philosophers.

I have used marijuana for a serious and chronic health condition for over 10 years, in varying amounts for the varying condition.

Currently, the use is heavy and the condition is stable or improving. As for what this condition is, I would ask you please not to speculate or spread rumours or half-truths. Canada has laws that are meant to protect the privacy of personal health information.

If you know me well, you will feel free to ask.

How did I manage this transition from clandestine smoker to officially accommodated one? It was an ugly process that started when college and university authorities, acting on policies to repress the use of marijuana among students, decided that they needed to enforce those laws and policies against me as well.

Over the course of months of sometimes angry discussions, the other side learned better what the facts of my case and the laws on marijuana actually are.

The outcome is that I have been provided with a ventilated basement smoking room in Trinity College, and the provost of the college and the provost of the university have both written me letters in which they “acknowledge” and “respect” my choice of therapy.

I take this opportunity to thank the college and the university for this good solution and for these necessary affirmations of the legitimacy of my conduct.

Colleagues and other U of T employees who may need adapted working conditions due to a health condition should know that since 2003 our university has had an Office of Health and Well-being Programs and Services, whose function is to support the work of afflicted employees.

The staff in this office recommend the appropriate accommodation while holding health information confidential from all other university parties. I found this process worked fairly well, and I feel that others should know about it and trust in its integrity.

Colleagues and others who use marijuana wholly or partly for medical reasons should be using medical-grade marijuana, with a good selection of strains, of which there are currently two sources of supply in Toronto.

I know these compassion clubs well and will be glad to offer informed advice. Colleagues and others who wonder whether their use of marijuana is medical, or whether they should try some preparation of marijuana for their health condition, should feel free to apply to me for guidance and further information.

Professors who become known as heavy users of marijuana risk a great loss of credibility, and I wish I had been able to remain discreet; but I was “outed” by college authorities from where I was hiding in my “dope closet.”

Under these circumstances, I decided to come out fully into the open, on my own terms. This is the reason I am writing this letter to you; and this is the reason I explained the situation to my undergraduate class on Tuesday, before they could be shocked (or not) at the sight of me puffing during the break (outside the building, of course).

It would be realistic of me to expect a higher than usual degree of scrutiny of my performance at this time; but rather than resent this scrutiny, the better plan is to invite it. There are 10 spare seats in my third-year class on Seneca, which meets from 10 am to 1 pm on Tuesdays, and I invite visits to my class from graduate students, colleagues and higher university officials to see for themselves whether the pot-head professor is teaching well.

Please get in touch with me if you intend to visit; and if you wish I will send you the Seneca readings for the day.

It is not a satisfactory defence of my Charter rights to have my grudging authorization from Health Canada while students and others are hounded as criminals for doing what looks like the very same thing; this casts dark shadows of opprobrium on the blameless sick.

My experience in coming out into the open has rekindled my activism on the marijuana front, and I am now building, with other Canadian activists, fresh legal challenges to our Charter-defective and previously invalidated prohibition, which seems to have been miraculously resurrected in October 2003 .

I invite colleagues and others to join me in this liberal struggle.

Howls of outrage (6)

2006 09 28
On top of everything else

Update: Thanks to Norm for the response. I’ve responded to his response here.

Norm writes (See original for hyperlinks; emphasis mine):

It’s hard to avoid the inference that we’re being told that the war in Iraq should not have happened, not only for all the other reasons the Guardian thinks it indeed shouldn’t have, but specifically because it has made the democracies more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But, as I’ve pointed out before, the same reasoning then applies to the intervention in Afghanistan; and the Guardian seems unable to handle this idea. More generally, are we supposed to conclude that no nation should ever enter a conflict when by doing so it might provoke some form of retaliation from those inimical to its aims? That a country should never engage in a war it can’t win in short order? It’s hard to think the editor of the Guardian could explicitly sign up to this conclusion, and that maybe is why the paper’s leader today doesn’t follow through on the thought which it nonetheless gestures towards.

I find Norm’s frequent comparison of Iraq with Afghanistan very odd. Whatever you think of Afghanistan, there was at least a clear casus belli. (This appears to be one reason that Afghanistan failed to inspire the same sort of massive backlash in the Middle East that the Iraq War did.) Moreover, once the U.S. and allies were into Afghanistan, they had a commitment to the country, a commitment which the adventure in Iraq made much, much harder to fulfil. Indeed, even if the case for invading Iraq had been as strong as the case for invading Afghanistan, a supporter of the war in Afghanistan could have consistently rejected the war on Iraq on the grounds that the second mission would endanger the first. Finally, far from providing a “gotcha!” moment for Norm, the fact that so many people supported the first war and rejected the second might be better taken as a tip-off that these people are not actually raving pacificists or knee-jerk anti-Americans.

But set that aside. I think the key here is in the phrase “not only” which I’ve put in bold. Critics of the war seem to me for the most part think that on top of the fact that the war was an unjustified aggressive war with terrible consequences, it has also made us less safe. Norm is right that by itself the fact that the war has made us less safe isn’t a decisive argument against it. (Of course, if the war had made us more safe, that wouldn’t have been a decisive argument for it. Other considerations might have outweighed it.) I think that sometimes he’s right to imply that critics are the war aren’t sufficiently clear about the logical structure of the argument. But put properly the point is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it’s one reason I’m so very bitter about this war.

I understand that Norm is reluctant, as am I, to rehash all the old arguments for the war. But there is nonetheless something increasingly dislocated about expressions of support for the war and occupation without some sort of renewed examination of the reasons for it. Iraq has been occupied for some time now. Things have gotten steadily worse in spite of it. A vast majority of Iraqis appear to want the U.S. to leave. The arguments have been made before, but the ground keeps moving from beneath them. The onus is on supporters of the war to explain how a continued presence, unpopular as it is in Iraq, will improve things, and to make some attempt to set conditions on a withdrawal to allay fears that the mission is ill-focused and open-ended.

How long, and what manner of occupation, then? With what conditions and goals? When do you decide that the mission is over? When do you give up? And what, while we’re at it, about war crimes committed by the U.S. in the course of the occupation, for example, in the second seige of Fallujah? And, looking back, has any of this bloodshed and violence made us any safer as many supporters of the war continue to claim? If Norm wants to convince anyone of anything surely this would be the place to focus his arguments.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 09 28
Shitting and Pissing on Iraqis?

Sorry, this is just too rich to continue my non-blogging ways: the shit and piss is finally starting to fall on those cursed Iraqis. Mission accomplished! (Nod to Kevin Drum.)

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 09 25
What’s the Deal with Chavez?

OK, dear Readers, my lazy ass could use some assistance. I don’t have the time or patience to do the research myself, so I thought I’d ask the best educated readership around. So, here goes, What’s the deal with Hugo Chavez? Specifically, has he in fact violated civil liberties? Jon Stewart and the folks at the Daily Show seem to operate on that belief, which is producing an unsettling amount of cognitive dissonance up in my hizzy.

Thank you.

Howls of outrage (17)

2006 09 24
House Concert

Posted by in: Music, Pictures we took

We had a house concert yesterday evening – our first such event. We learned two things from it: First, our apartment looks much nicer when we actually clean it, as we had to in order to prepare for the show. Who knew? Second, house concerts are fun!

Here’s the band:

From left to right, that’s Vinnie Sperrazza on percussion, Mike McGinnis on bass clarinet, Jacob Sacks on melodica, Khabu Doug Young on ukulele, and Yoon Sun Choi on toy piano and voice.

Here’s a nice shot of Vin, Mike, and Jacob:

Sadly, although the show was recorded, almost all the music performed last night is protected by copyright. But it makes sense that I can’t throw up a free mp3 of the show for a dozen of my friends to enjoy, since that music would never have been written in the first place if the composers had known that someone might some day get not-rich from sharing crappy quality live performances of the music with a few friends.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 09 23

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Some of you dorks–I love all of you, of course–may be interested in what’s going on over here. (See comments section, too).

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2006 09 21
Reports of his death blah, blah, blah, you know the rest

I don’t know why I found this so funny, but the part in bold just made me howl:

President Bush ended many New Yorkers’ gridlock nightmares by leaving the city yesterday, but he – and the rest of the U.S. delgation to the United Nations – missed Venezulan President Hugo Chavez’s speech. And what a speech it was: Chavez called Bush “the devil,” said it smelled of sulfur (since Bush had stood there), and showed said Americans should be reading Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance instead of “watching Superman and Batman movies.” Yeah, a big F-U to Bush and Hollywood! The NY Times reported laughs and gasps during his speech, because the General Assembly is normally a staid crowd. (The NY Times also reported how Chavez’s regret was that he never met Chomsky before he died, pointing out that Chomsky is actually alive.)

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 09 21
Turns out, Bush Hates NAFTA!

I said the other night in a speech, this is like the ideological war of the 21st century, and I believe it…Imagine — imagine a corporation that can’t stand what we believe in getting a hold of factories and call centers and taking a bunch of jobs off the market in order to have an economic punishment. In other words, they say, you go ahead and accept wage and living-standard stagnation, and if you don’t, we’ll punish you economically.

Yeah, right. For the real version, replace the bold phrases with the following: an enemy, oil resourses, oil, and do this [i.e., whatever the oilers want us to do]

Howls of outrage (6)

2006 09 18
On the Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition

Matthew Yglesias has been doing yeoman’s work beating down various versions of the “Incompetence Dodge,” the idea that it was reasonable to support the Iraq War prior to its initiation because it was impossible to foresee how incredibly incompetently the Bush administration would handle the war. Here’s Andrew Sullivan, for example, taking up one aspect of this view:

The more we find out about the spectacular recklessness of this administration’s conduct of the war the less persuasive it is that this operation was always doomed to failure. In my view, although the war was always going to be extremely difficult, it wasn’t necessarily doomed from the start. It was the administration’s relentless, politicized incompetence that doomed it.

Now suppose that more troops had been sent into Baghdad, and imagine that it had been possible to keep them there. Imagine also that these troops had been instructed to prevent the looting that plagued the country immediately after the war. Imagine further that the Iraq army hadn’t been disbanded, the Sunnis alienated unnecessarily, and so on. In other words, imagine that things had gone much better in the first year of occupation. I submit that the U.S. would still be in trouble today, though Iraq itself might have been a bit better off. An explanation for this is provided by the Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition, which, applied to today’s world, states that the imperial ambitions of the Bush administration will always expand to fill the available space. If the first year in Iraq had gone better, the Bush administration’s ambitions for Iraq and the region would have been correspondingly grander, and the consequences just as, or even more, dire, once the backlash caught up to them. The basic problem here is that more wars were in the offing, and very little in the way of real representation for the people being liberated. The Grand Plan here is not one that would have ever worked, and the fact that the Bush administration stumbled on the first, rather than the second or third step, couldn’t change that.

The Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition explains why the Incompetence Dodge dodges nothing at all: Less incompetence in Iraq would have just entailed greater encouragement to mess things up later.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 09 14
Our Mission in Iraq

I haven’t spent much time with the blogs recently, but did anyone notice how the senior Marine commander in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, characterized the US’s mission there? NYT:

�For what we are trying to achieve out here I think our force levels are about right,� said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, who defined his primary mission as training the Iraqi forces who ultimately would be responsible for security in the area.

�Now, if that mission statement changes � if there is seen a larger role for coalition forces out here to win that insurgency fight � then that is going to change the metrics of what we need out here,� General Zilmer added.


In his telephone news conference, Zilmer became much more upbeat than his intelligence chief, saying he saw long-term trends as positive. “I think we are winning this war,” he told reporters. “We are certainly accomplishing our mission,” which he defined as developing Iraq security forces.

Has this been a talking point all along? Or is this another changing of the goal posts? Anyone else anticipate the day when Bush or McCain or whoever claims that the US did everything it could to give Iraq a first-world military but the Iraqis were unwilling to give it a first-world effort? “What else can we do? We toppled their dictator and gave them every opportunity to protect themselves. We can’t do any more. Time to go home.”

Howls of outrage (7)

2006 09 11
A September 11th Post

Five years ago, we had just moved to Brooklyn and were living in an apartment in the South Slope, with a great view of Southern Manhattan. We were up on the roof shortly after the attack. It was very sad. For a long time I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, and after that I became completely, pathologically, obsessed with the news for a long time.

I’ve got my own memories of that day, and the following days, but I never wanted to post them here or anywhere else. I never wanted to participate in any way, even by watching, in any memorials of the event. There are a few reasons for this, but the main reason is that in the intervening days and years the deaths of all those innocents has been repeatedly invoked to manipulate people into all sorts of positions they shouldn’t have adopted: positions on domestic security, civil liberties, and, yes, the Iraq War. I don’t see how to avoid my own private backlash against all this cynicism. At any rate, the backlash means that I will acknowledge, but don’t want to dwell publicly on, how shitty it was for all those innocents to die, or how shitty it felt to watch them die. It’s all just more emotion to be transformed into something mawkish, and then twisted to some ugly purpose.

So I’ll just say that I remember standing on the rooftop in Brooklyn talking to a neighbour, both of us looking at the smoke pouring out of the WTC when both towers were still standing. I don’t remember who it was, probably one of the students at the New School, from the apartment downstairs. Anyway, whoever it was turned to me and said, “Before this is over, you just know a lot of innocent people are going to die.” He meant: before the U.S. is done responding to this, before the insanity this unleashes is over.

This was, I think, not a bad guess about the subsequent hysteria that swept over the country. Rather better than the pundits, at least, most of whom fully participated in it. And certainly better than the politicians who led the way, or who followed behind it.

These same people are still talking. And I just wish they would shut the fuck up.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 09 10

Update #1: A while back I asked for advice about a teaching handout on writing. Many thanks for all the helpful advice. The link in the post now points to the revised draft of the handout. I took most of the advice I got, though a few of Anne’s better suggestions (by phone and email) had to be abandoned, since following them properly would have taken up too much time.

Update #2: I hate to admit when I’m wrong, but my fierce love of the truth obliges me to update this post on the miraculous powers of baking soda.

Update #3: 400 flights in an hour on the stairmaster, celebrated in this post, has now become fairly easy for me. This surprises me, since the first time I did it it nearly killed me, and that was less than a month ago. Also, it’s not as if I built up to it slowly. Before that my previous personal bests were 386 on Aug. 18th, 370 on Aug. 14th, and 351 on Aug. 12th. Yes, I record all that in a little book. Do you have a problem with that? (I put on a huge push to get to 400 because “A” and I had a family membership at Ballys, and “A” was sick of it. Since I strongly suspected that Ballys was too stupid to attempt to keep me as a customer, I had to get to 400 before I moved to the cheaper Y, which sadly lacks a stairmaster.) Anyway, I have a hard time believing that these gains are all physical. Rather, I suspect that something here is 90% half mental – probably the psychological aspect.

As for Ballys, wow am I ever glad that I didn’t commit to three years with them. I probably would have been content to stay if “A” hadn’t detested the Ballys at Tilden in Flatbush so much, but then I have more patience for things like buckets strategically placed all over the floor every time it rains, equipment that stays broken for long periods of time, etc. etc. etc. What kind of gym runs completely out of paper towels and then doesn’t do anything about it for weeks? Also, when I went to try to find out what would happen to my rates once “A” left the club, I had a series of irritating and inclusive exchanges which culminated in a phone call to a 1-800 number, at which point I was put on hold for 55 minutes. And seriously, what kind of company puts a customer on hold for that long? What a bunch of fuckers.

By the way, if you live in NYC, the Y is having a membership drive now. The joining fee will be waived if you join before the end of September, and if you’re a student, the rates are especially low.

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2006 09 06
More on Google Books

Posted by in: Books

Since I posted about this, I’ve found even more goodies, saving me trips to the library. It hasn’t all been clear sailing, however. Just now, I needed to look at an article from volume 2 (1869) of the Journal of Philology. Cue Google Books, and voila! My ass can stay parked right at home, where it belongs. And yet, when I started to read the article, I noticed that the second page of the article, p. 56, never got scanned. This reminded me of this comment by Juan Cole, who is also excited in general about the project:

One problem: I am already finding poorly done books, where every other page is blurred beyond reading. This is very bad because I don’t know when it would ever be corrected, and no one would have an incentive to carry out this sort of project once Google has.

I hope Google will tighten its quality control, and will commit to redoing flawed scanning jobs. For many research projects, only if everything is there will solid results be reached. I fear I think some of its subcontractors may be taking advantage and doing shoddy work, especially in languages other than English.

That is a bit worrying, isn’t it?

Howls of outrage (3)

2006 09 05
How to talk about feminism

Holy fuck, this is good. Really, one of the best things I’ve ever read on a blog.

Howls of outrage (2)