Peter Singer on Effective Altruism

Peter Singer (by Derek Goodwin for the New York Times)

Peter Singer (by Derek Goodwin for the New York Times)

With the humanities under assault from those who confuse the higher purpose of higher ed with vocational training for a high-paying career, philosophy majors need to be especially thick-skinned these days. Or maybe deep pocketed, since the market value of deep thinking is deeply discounted in today’s economy. Only a philosopher could construct a logical argument for why an undergraduate degree in philosophy might be worth as much as one in, say, economics or engineering. After all, if colleges are to be evaluated and ranked, and their endowments plumped up, by the earning power of their alumni, they can hardly fault their debt-saddled students for choosing majors with the maximum income potential. These days, studying philosophy amounts to taking a vow of poverty, unless you plan to go to law school, but the job prospects for young lawyers are much diminished, too. Continue reading ‘Peter Singer on Effective Altruism’

Real Cowgirls Wear Vegan Boots

Ingrid Newkirk won't have blood on her hands

Ingrid Newkirk won’t have blood on her hands

I went to hear Ingrid Newkirk, the president and founder of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), speak in Cambridge recently. I went because I was curious to learn about the animal rights movement from Newkirk herself, the organization’s star spokeswoman whose media stunts dramatizing animal abuse and suffering at the hands of humans have been enormously effective – and highly polarizing. I was surprised that the audience wasn’t younger or larger, given Newkirk’s celebrity and the growing awareness (at least here in the People’s Republic) that animal rights activists can no longer be dismissed as a bunch of cranks who throw red paint at women in fur coats.

About one hundred members of the local PETA choir gathered on a Sunday afternoon at Lesley University. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the congregation was roughly two-thirds female. We gatherers may be more naturally sympathetic to the plight of animals (just as we are prone to hoarding cats), or maybe the guys were all hunkered down in their man caves watching the Patriots game that afternoon. Charismatic as Newkirk is – she calls to mind a feistier, British version of Diane Sawyer – her brassy, take-no-prisoners manner may put off men of the alpha hunter variety. I suspect that I was one of the few non-vegans in the audience, and I was glad that I’d thought at the last minute to change my footwear from leather boots to canvas sneakers. (I still may have crossed some line because Converse cannot say definitively that no animal-based glues are used in their shoes.)


Newkirk’s (fully clothed) appearance in Cambridge was one stop on a national speaking tour.

I have tremendous admiration for Newkirk’s passion. Her unblinking commitment to ending the suffering and exploitation of all creatures great and small is extraordinary. Working tirelessly since 1980, when she exposed the cruel abuse of monkeys at a federally funded research lab in Silver Spring, Newkirk has moved the animal rights needle significantly toward mainstream acceptance. She has every right to be proud of the progress her organization has made over the past three decades, and casts herself as both an optimist and a fighter: “Movements for social change can succeed if you don’t have a wishbone where a backbone ought to be,” she asserted.

Newkirk wants us all to view animal rights – total animal liberation is PETA’s true goal – as the next logical frontier in the Civil Rights movement. She’s not shy about quoting Lincoln out of context (“If we ourselves do not wish to be slaves, then we surely do not wish to be masters.”) and she has a gift for tossing off witty jabs against speciesism (“We humans think we’re special because one of us invented Cheetos and another the self-cleaning oven.”) “Never be silent,” she implored any spineless audience members who might hesitate to impose their animal ethics on others.

6a00d83451b71f69e2015433105872970c-800wiEthics. As Newkirk spoke, I looked at the PETA logo projected on the screen behind her. The lower case “e” stands out.  Am I an unethical person because I resist seeing the issue in the same black and white terms Newkirk does? I am an animal lover of the first order with a dog blog to prove it, yet I struggle with PETA’s absolute line in the sand. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a vegan shoe-wearing, card-carrying PETA member, I probably weigh in at about a 5.

My animal ethics are wildly inconsistent. I am a vegetarian, but I can’t extend PETA’s ethics to most fish. I do try to stick to sustainable seafood, and I won’t eat Flipper, but I don’t lose sleep over cod or clams. I buy cage-free eggs, but I realize that I still eat processed foods that contain eggs of unknown provenance. I am indiscriminate in the kinds of dairy products I eat, turning a blind eye to what Newkirk calls the “rape racks” used to impregnate the cows and goats – the lactating mothers whose babies are cruelly snatched from their udders – that produced my Greek yogurt and my chèvre cheese. I do not eat lamb or veal, but I wear sweaters made from sheep’s wool and shoes made of cowhide. I abhor the way foie gras is produced, but my winter coat is stuffed with goose down. Newkirk is adamant that there are no responsible dog breeders, but I bought my cockapoo from a local breeder, though at least Eddie didn’t come from a puppy mill in Kansas. In Newkirk’s book, I imagine I am only marginally better than a clubber of baby seals.


Newkirk will not be gagged.

When I arrived home after the lecture, my house reeked of charred chicken. Newkirk noted that Americans eat one million chickens per hour; my husband prefers his cooked to a crisp. He knows how I feel about eating meat, and I respect his choice to continue doing so, though he now eats less of it than he used to because I do more of our meal planning and food shopping. Truth be told, I am too lazy to become a vegan, because it would require far more effort to eliminate all fish, dairy and eggs from my diet. Changing my own diet won’t amount to a hill of beans, and if I refuse to coerce my own family members into changing their habits, how can I in good conscience lobby strangers’ to change? I care but I don’t care enough, or I care about too many other issues at the same time and am too easily overwhelmed.

It’s complicated. Newkirk scores a perfect 10 on the animal ethics scale, but when she casually let slip that she sometimes shops at Payless Shoes I wondered if she had weighed the human cost of manufacturing cheap synthetic shoes in the developing world? Or the environmental cost of the plastic leather used in many vegan shoes and bags. Every single thing we humans consume comes with a hidden cost beyond its price tag. The real world is full of gray areas, and once you make an emotional investment in caring about issues like animal rights, climate change and fair trade, to name a few, the burden of making socially responsible choices can quickly lead to pessimism. Paralysis, even. What most inspired me about Newkirk was her unwavering optimism that social change is possible, that individual actions can and do make a difference.

Real cowgirls wear vegan boots from Sudo Shoes

Real cowgirls wear vegan boots from Sudo Shoes

So I will continue taking small steps. Last week I visited a vegan shoe store in Porter Square and bought a pair of rubber boots. (The next time it rains look for me walking my dog in my new purple Bogs.). Sudo Shoes stocks some very attractive styles, and I will definitely make the store my first stop the next time I need new shoes (and first I will try to wear out the shoes I already have). I have already told three friends about Sudo, and if you’re reading this now you know, too. That’s something, right?

Misled Again!

Before last week I had never been on a walking tour of my hometown of twenty years, and I probably would not have signed up for the Cambridge Historical Society’s recent outing had it not been titled “Misled.” You see, the word “misled” has long been a running joke in my family, ever since I realized that, in my mind, I had been mispronouncing it myz-əld, despite knowing perfectly well how the past participle of the verb “mislead” should be pronounced. For years – well past college – I persisted in this private malapropism, until the time I read it aloud using my invented pronunciation, provoking howls of laughter from my husband. He’s my ex-husband now, but this is one of the enduring catchphrases from the happier years of our marriage. “Myz-əld again!” one of us will say, and the other is guaranteed to laugh.

Elmwood c. 1920-39 (CHS archives)

Elmwood c. 1920-39 (CHS archives)

“History with an asterisk” is how our guide, CHS Executive Director Gavin Kleespies, framed the Misled tour’s organizing principle to the forty-odd folks who turned out for a two-hour stroll in the Brattle Street area on August 14. One of our first stops was the buttercup yellow Georgian-style mansion at 33 Elmwood Street. Built in 1767 as the then-100-acre country estate of the Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver, a Tory whose wealth came from a slave plantation in Antigua, Elmwood was later the lifelong home of the poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell (1819-91). Since 1962 it has served as Harvard’s own White House, but it would be 45 years before a female president took residence. I think Lowell would be pleased that Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust now presides over Elmwood, succeeding economist Larry Summers, whose foot was in his mouth for a good deal of his tenure.

More interesting from an etymological standpoint, however, is Elmwood’s connection to the political deck-stacking practice of “gerrymandering.” Elmwood was also the home of Elbridge Gerry, a Bay State governor and briefly vice president under James Madison (he died in office after one year). Mr. Kleespies told us that the “-mander” in the term derives from a journalist’s observation that the controversial new voting district was shaped like a salamander. I suppose “lizard” was too prosaic, or we might be talking about the ongoing “gerryarding” in Texas.

Gerrymander is one of those words that trips up people unless they know the historical name association. Otherwise it’s reasonable to assume it’s spelled like “jerry-built,” itself derived from and often confused with “jury-rigged,” which sounds sort of like gerrymandering from a judicial standpoint, except that the “jury” derives from the 17th century term for a stopgap ship’s mast, not from a jury of your peers. Misled again! By the way, I’m surprised Jerry Seinfeld never tackled the Jerry-Gerry confusion, or why Gillian and Jillian are pronounced differently, but the men’s names aren’t.

Leif Erikson never slept here (and he's not buried here either).

Leif Erikson never slept here (and he’s not buried here either).

A little further along our walk we stopped at a large granite marker set in a weedy no man’s land behind Mount Auburn Hospital, hard by the busy intersection of Memorial Drive and Fresh Pond Parkway. “On this spot in the year 1000, Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland,” the marker proclaims. This inscription has misled passersby for 110 years, Mr. Kleespies said – and not because it was moved from its original spot a dozen yards away when the intersection was widened in 1964 – but because there is no historical proof that any Vikings settled in what is now Cambridge, first known as “Newtowne.” The man responsible for the spurious theory and the marker was Eben Norton Horsford, a Harvard-affiliated chemist best known for reformulating baking powder, who waged an proto-Aryan propaganda campaign to credit America’s discovery to the Norse Erikson over the Italian Columbus. Misled again! And while we’re at it, is the preferred spelling “Erikson” or “Ericson” and should his first name pronounced “leaf” or “lay-f”?

Back on the quieter side of Mount Auburn, at 7 Lowell Street, we admired the former home of Edward Bernays, a direct descendent of Sigmund Freud on both sides, who made a name for himself on Madison Avenue by reformulating propaganda as “public relations.” After noting that the house originally fronted Brattle Street when it was built in 1850 for Moses Rice, Mr. Kleespies mentioned that Bernays led a local lobbying campaign in the early 1960s opposing the planned expansion of Memorial Drive, which would have necessitated cutting down the stately old trees lining both sides of the road and would have blocked access to recreation along the Charles River. The rallying cry of the Citizens Emergency Committee to Save Memorial Drive was “Save the Sycamores,” a bit of poetic PR license that garnered even more press for the campaign after it was revealed that the trees are not sycamores but London plane trees. Most of those same plane trees still stand proud, and Memorial Drive, though hardly a cow path, is at least closed to cars on Sundays from May through October. Misled again, but for a worthy cause.

A side note, not mentioned on the tour, is that while the “father of public relations” was saving trees, his Cambridge contemporary Julia Child, the mother of French cuisine in America, was extolling the virtues of béarnaise sauce, a near homophone for “Bernays.” I wonder if the French Chef was aware that in the 1920s Bernays had been instrumental in making bacon and eggs a staple of the hearty All-American breakfast through a doctor-endorsed PR campaign for his client Beech-Nut, a leading producer of bacon? With their pincers attack on the American diet – fatty meat at breakfast, buttery sauces at dinner – Bernays and Child may have unwittingly contributed to the rise of heart disease in the U.S. But, to their credit, both were benefactors of Mount Auburn Hospital, which boasts one of the nation’s most highly rated cardiac care units. And despite their rich tastes, both outlived many of their Cambridge contemporaries; Bernays died in 1995, at 103, and Child in 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday.

The Washington Elm (Scribner's Magazine May 1876)

The Washington Elm (Scribner’s Magazine May 1876)

Near the end of our walk, as summer’s late twilight closed in, we paused in Cambridge Common to consider another misleading granite marker. This one stands beneath a tree it identifies as the famed Washington Elm, where General George Washington camped with Patriot troops in 1775. While no one disputes that the tree is an elm, only the most credulous passerby would mistake this welterweight specimen for a tree that stood more than two centuries ago. Mr. Kleespies informed us that the original Washington Elm, which was located across Concord Avenue, saw its demise in 1924. The modern replacement is, at least, genetically identical, having been grafted from one of the many small pieces salvaged from the forefather.

The tour was a delightful way to discover some quirky bits of Cambridge history, and more than anything I was struck by how fortunate we are to have the Cambridge Historical Society working so energetically to fact-check and share stories that bring history to life. And, to clear up a last bit of potential confusion: the CHS is a nonprofit, founded in 1905, whose primary mission is educational, while the Cambridge Historical Commission is a public agency, created in 1963, that oversees the landmarking and conservation of historic sites and districts. The blue oval plaques that mark official historic sites bear the CHC seal; on the tour Mr. Kleespies pointed out a phony, seal-less plaque on the fence at 92 Brattle Street. The Sarah and Emma Carey house is old, dating to 1881-2, and a splendid example of Queen Anne stick style architecture, but not designated as historic, per se. The CHS and the CHC work together harmoniously, but the Society depends on the support of donors while the Commission is publicly funded. The CHS is in the midst of a capital campaign to preserve its headquarters, the 17th century Hooper-Lee-Nichols House at 159 Brattle Street, the second oldest house in Cambridge. Give, if you can, and history will keep giving back.

Hooper-Lee-Nichols House c. 1960-69 (CHS archives)

Hooper-Lee-Nichols House c. 1960-69 (CHS archives)

Top Secret: Selling Weapons of Mass Protection


I’m delighted to have a piece published on Work Stew about my first job after business school.

Originally posted on Work Stew:

By Jan Devereux

JanDevereuxTwenty-five years ago I had what I jokingly referred to as “a very absorbing job” working as an associate brand manager for a market-leading consumer product sold in grocery and drug stores in over 100 countries. My brand’s name, like “Kleenex” (but not), had become synonymous with the product itself, so much so that our corporate legal department dictated that every single use of the brand name, from print ads to packaging to coupons, be followed by the registered trademark symbol. Headquartered just outside New York City, the Fortune 500 company, long ranked in the top five for its return on equity, was spending about $12 million annually in the U.S. alone to advertise a product that was already a household name in several languages, albeit one that proved a conversation stopper every time someone asked me where I worked.

By all rights, I had every reason…

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Thank You, Mrs. Konigsburg (and Ross)

E.L. Konigsburg with son Ross and me, 1967

E.L. Konigsburg with son Ross and me, Oct. 1967

I never thought of it before today but, as a child, my two favorite authors both published under their initials: E.B. White (whose spider’s woven vocabulary lesson inspired this blog’s name) and E.L. Konigsburg, who died on Friday at age 83. I never met the creator of Charlotte, Wilbur, and Stuart, but I did have good fortune to meet Elaine Lobl Konigsburg, in 1967, because her son, Ross, was one of my grade school classmates. Her first two books were published the same year, and she came to our school library for a special reading and book-signing event.

I remember vividly the confusing mix of embarrassment and pride I felt when I was pulled off the afternoon school bus to pose for a photo with Ross and his mother. The bus driver had to wait for a good ten minutes while the photographer fiddled with his flash and repositioned us around a table stacked with books to get the shot just right. I knew, and the other kids waiting on the bus to go home surely suspected, that we had all been delayed because Ross had a crush on me. My embarrassment and confusion were compounded the next day when the photo appeared in the local newspaper, and my mother wondered aloud why the photographer hadn’t directed me to tuck the stray lock of hair behind my ear. There I was, hair astray, pictured with shy, nerdy Ross, when, like every girl in our class, I had fallen hard for Dick Still, whose All-American good looks and athleticism crowned him our golden prince right through our 6th grade graduation. (Forgive me, Ross, if you ever stumble across this post. I’m sure we’ve both come a long way since 3rd grade!) Continue reading ‘Thank You, Mrs. Konigsburg (and Ross)’

Gimme Shelter, in Place

I will never complain about crowds or traffic in Harvard Square again

I swear, I’ll never complain about the traffic in Harvard Square again.

Yesterday, pre-lockdown, I was drafting a reflection on why I’ve always resisted self-identifying as a Bostonian. This is where I left off:

I wasn’t anywhere near the finish line of this year’s Boston Marathon, and even if I hadn’t been out of town, I never would have braved the crowds in Copley Square to be there. Nothing against the runners, I steer clear of Boston’s other signature events, too. I don’t have the slightest interest in attending First Night, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or the July 4th Pops concert and fireworks on the Esplanade. I just can’t stand large crowds.

So, where was I on Marathon Monday? In tranquil midtown Manhattan, at Museum of Modern Art, along with throngs of others taking in the “Inventing Abstraction” exhibit. Critically acclaimed and set to close the next day, the show documented the explosion in the art world that began 100 years ago and radically changed how we see the world. Nothing would be the same after 1913, in art or geo-politics. Continue reading ‘Gimme Shelter, in Place’

Leaning In with the Women of Mad Men

mm31Like many rabid Mad Men fans, I’ve been pre-gaming for the April 7 kickoff of Season 6 by re-watching Season 5. And, like many of my girlfriends, I’ve also been reading and thinking about Lean In, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s new playbook for professional women. In Sandberg’s view, the office playing field hasn’t leveled off nearly enough for women in the 40-plus years since Mad Men heroines Peggy Olson and Joan Harris were the female standard bearers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – and, Sandberg asserts, instead of whining that the game is (still) rigged, today’s women simply need to “lean in” harder. Watching Mad Men has given me a new appreciation for how hard Peggy and Joan had to lean in back in their day, and reading Sandberg’s book has given me a new lens through which to view their actions.

So, let’s listen in on a “Lean In Circle” facilitated by author Sheryl Sandberg, as Peggy and Joan relate their progress moving the ball down the career field. The circle’s meeting takes place immediately following Episode 11 of Season 5 (“The Other Woman”). Continue reading ‘Leaning In with the Women of Mad Men’

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