Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My wonderfully sneaky Aunt Martha

My aunt Martha is very sneaky. She sent my sister and me the exact same present--a small stainless steel flask that's perfect for carrying some coffee or soup and a bar of nice chocolate. It was beautifully wrapped in wonderfully patterned tissue paper and the card was hand-painted. She's a wonderfully talented water colorist--although she doesn't always think so. She's too shy to put her stuff out for sale; but, as she said to me, she goes to galleries and sees stuff for dale that isn't as good as what she does. So even if she doesn't think her work is very good, she might as well try to sell some of it. That's what she gave to all of her grandnieces and nephews.

Now, I was curious about the mini thermos. I wanted to see how it worked, and it's a good thing too--because, if I hadn't, I wouldn't have noticed the check inside.

UPDATE: I am now going to test out my flask/thermos with some of the Trader Joe's red pepper tomato soup. (The only link I could find was to a pdf.) It's delicious stuff.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Fundamental Question in Basic Political Philosophy

When is it appropriate for the state to do something it forbids its citizens from doing? I think about this question constantly in the context of the death penalty. I am deeply opposed to the death penalty, and I once invented a rationale that I thought was beautiful in its simplicity: the death penalty was wrong, because it undermined the integrity of the law. How could the state engage in an act of violence, of killing, especially since most of the time the death penalty was meted out to murderers? How could this possibly teach the respect for life which was embodied in the legal prohibitions against murder?

Since I’m not an absolute pacifist, I even thought through a justification for killing in war. Wars occurred between nations (not, one hoped, within them—although this too is common enough), and this meant that, in a very real sense, the existence of international law and the laws of war notwithstanding, they were activities outside of the law. In a functioning legal system, where it was possible to maintain the public safety by putting violent criminals in prison, there could be no justification for state-sanctioned killing. Self-defense is, to my way of thinking, a special exception, but it too represents a breakdown of civilization, because we would (or, at least, should) prefer to have the police there to disarm and arrest the dangerous. And self-defense is, for the most part, state sanctioned but not executed by the agents of the state. Sure, in the midst of danger police sometimes kill, but there is, or ought to be, a sense that this act represents a failure. It would be better to try the individual, to convict him after due process of law and sentence him to an appropriate punishment. It’s plenty common to see people mutter under their breath after some publicized shoot-out, “Well, at least we saved the cost of a trial.” But this always makes me shudder with some disgust. Self-defense of this sort may be necessary, but it can never be the preferred outcome.

But for many (and not just in Texas or Virginia) death seems to be the preferred option, the punishment of choice. And when we impose a sentence of death, deliberated on by a jury or judge, and marked with the authority and force of the entire legal system, something qualitatively different from self-defense is happening. And I think that that something is wrong, because it is not an action committed under duress, in the heat of passion, or in war.

I feel this distinction in my bones. And yet, sovereign states do things that individuals are not allowed to do all the time. They can force people to sell their property for public use; they can confine people involuntarily following whatever constitutes something as nebulous as 'due process of law'; they can force their citizens to pay them money, i.e. taxes--and unless you are a pure libertarian, you accept all of these things as being of the nature of governments.

So, here’s the question, when is it morally justified for the state to behave in ways that would not be tolerated if they were acting as individual citizens and how do you draw the line?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The deepest longing of my heart

Elizabeth Wordsworth hit the nail in the head. I wish that she were wrong.

If all the good people were clever
And all the clever people were good
The world would be nicer than ever
We thought that it possibly could.
But somehow, 'tis seldom or ner
The two hit it off as they should
The good are so harsh to the clever
The clever so rude to the good!
--Elizabeth Wordsworth

Friday, November 25, 2005


Thanksgiving was lovely. I spent the day with my friend Cecilia and her in-laws and their extended cousins in Norwell on the South Shore. They had a gorgeous property which abuts the Norris Reservation. I brought my running shoes along, since we were planning to go for a walk along one of the trails. We were a bit late getting the hors d'oeuvres there and didn't manage to sit down to dinner until 3 or so. By the time we were finishing up, it was already getting dark.

And the grandmothers were delightful, even if they didn't care much for Latin. One of them much regrets that she isn't able to drink quite as many martinis as she used to. I've never been a huge fan of them myself, but I sympathize with her predicament completely.

Still, it was a wondeful meal. There was even sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and they were real sweet potatoes, the light pale yellow kind. I like yams--baked and topped with butter and brown sugar they're a real winter treat with a ham steak--but these sweet potatoes were mild and not too sweet. And there were four kinds of pies--squash, apple, mince and pecan. It was very good.

And there was a wonderfully cozy fire and a prefectly mixed gin and tonic to savor as things wound down. We loaded up the back of the Saab with firewood as we headed back to the city.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Web Sites for Non-profits

I've been doing a lot of volunteering lately for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) on their healthcare initiative. GBIO is part of the MassACT coalition, a group brought together by the lobbying firm Health Care for All. I've been out collecting signatures, and our lobbying efforts seem to have made a real difference in the Senate healthcare bill. We got them to include amendments providing for an expansion of MassHealth. The Senate Bill was much stingier than the House version. It's been a lot of fun, but our technology tools have been pretty awful. We send e-mails of spreadsheets back and forth, but a lot of the contact information ought to be managed online. When you call people to ask them to call their Senator or to show up at an ACTION, you ought to be able to enter whether people can come into a database by logging in over the internet. It's just like an election canvass. And you ought to be able to break down access to various databases by congregation. It shouldn't be too hard.

I wonder whether something like Civic Space Labs would work, but they don't really have much of a budget for technology. They've got 2.5 organizers and they're going to hire an office manager, but it's a real shoe string of an operation. Civic Space Labs looks like a great idea, but it still requires a fairly high level of technical sophistication to operate it, and the website doesn't provide easy access to consultants who can cost-effectively help you get a site up and running. It isn't exactly obvious how one would go about suggesting that they set up a list of vendors. They have a forum, but it only provides the information that people post, and it isn't organized. Open Source stuff is great, but sometimes you just want searchable, hierarchically organized information. Who's available to help with this in Boston and what do they charge? It shouldn't be so complicated.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


It's cold and rainy and gray. On the radio they said that snow was going to hit, but not here in Boston, in northern New England. I'm sure that all of my skiiing friends are glad, but I hate winter. The only consolation is that once Christmas hits, the days will start to get longer.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Daily Grind

I don't have anything terribly profound to say today. There's quite a bit going on in my personal life, but I don't think that it's stuff that I want to write about here. I did want to write something, though, to get in the habit of writing. I suppose that it's a bit like calisthenics: even when it seems meaningless there's some value in the process itself. Writing about nothing keeps me in shape for writing about something.

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