Rob Mather of AMF.

Giving What We Can: Oxford brought the founder and director of the Against Malaria Foundation to St. John’s College last night. For those that are unaware, AMF is rated by both the American charity evaluator GiveWell and by Giving What We Can‘s own research team as the most effective charity in the world at reducing suffering. They distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, which go a long way to combating the toxic physiological, social and economic effects that malaria cripples Third World communities with on a daily basis. By now they can guarantee a bed-net will reach a family for around every $5 donated.

I say they, but the biggest insight gained last night was the extent to which AMF is a mere two-person show running an international aid operation from Mather’s home-office in Fulham. He could teach state departments a thing or two about keeping costs down and running programs like clockwork. Granted, AMF’s success and ability to work in such conditions is currently largely down to the goodwill of Citigroup, Microsoft and many other private firms that offer the free infrastructure their distribution chains depend on, but for the central organisation itself to be so minimalist is still an impressive feat.

A lot of the discussion centred around AMF’s key claim that 100% of donations are guaranteed to be spent on their direct development work, rather than at least partially contributing to their small operational costs. This isn’t a lie, but it is at least mildly deceptive insofar as it conceals the fact that AMF obviously does need some operational financing to function, and this money is still sought in donations. But Mather decided that for now it is best to seek the latter sort of funding from special private benefactors, in order to preserve the truth of the key claim for the general public that their donations will only do real work. He’s convinced, after much experience, that this is the best pitch to get people on board with AMF’s work, given the level of cynicism that dominates public perception of charities.

And cynicism about charities is something Mather has explicit sympathy for, though I suspect the phrase ‘healthy scepticism’ better reflects his attitude. It’s not that most charities are fraudulent, so much as that the job of checking one’s good intentions succeed requires a level of obsessive scrutiny and self-criticism that few have the humility to manage. He told many stories of early AMF failures, and how difficult it is to recognise and overcome the hurdles of ensuring political corruption and black market forces don’t pollute the distribution network for the bed nets. When dependence on the good will and skill of others multiple connections away from you is inevitable, the potential for systemic malfunction is also worryingly high. The rigour of AMF’s mechanisms for checking that what they say they do is done is undoubtedly the most impressive thing about them, and it goes a long way to explaining their unconditional endorsements from the world’s leading charity evaluators.

My allowance for the term arrived in my account this morning. I’ll be donating a tenth of it immediately, which amounts to around £300. I’ve decided to split it such that AMF receive half, and then the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and GiveDirectly get a quarter each.

You can read more about AMF here, and donate to their fund here.


Another odd case of the law struggling to deal with killing. A guy got so plastered in the States that he found himself recklessly driving a car and causing two people to die. He got hit with a long jail sentence accordingly, but was formally convicted of murderNow his lawyers are appealing on the grounds that to murder someone requires an intent that one can only have if one isn’t totally off one’s face after binge-drinking beer for ten hours.

I’m strongly inclined to just say, look, perhaps our idea of murder is used to designate those acts where there is sufficient forethought of the kind that is clearly not possible when someone reaches mental states like these. But that’s fine. We just have to call the act in question something else which better captures the fact it was sheer inexcusable negligence rather than actively planning evil. That does nothing to show there isn’t a similarly stringent responsibility that we all have not to put ourselves in states where such catastrophic consequences materialise so effortlessly, and so nor does it do anything to show the law shouldn’t come down equally hard on his ass to enforce a norm against behaviour that can be as destructive as strict acts of murder. And that’s true even when we see these things are most probably conceptually distinct.

Once that’s kept in mind, there shouldn’t be too much room for disagreement here. We just need to cultivate our emotions to react more strongly to killing through negligence, rather than reserving our moral outrage mainly for murderers.

British law and assisted suicide.

This case reported in The Guardian on Friday is very worrying. I almost want to put it down to bad reporting and say some salient facts must have been omitted, because as things stand, the law and court come across as absurd.

To sum up: a man bought his drunken ‘friend’ petrol in the knowledge that he intended to use it to burn himself alive. He was subsequently convicted for assisted suicide, and has been sentenced to twelve years in jail. The judge complains in his statement about a clear lack of compassion in the choice to buy and deliver the petrol.

The problem here is pretty obvious. We don’t generally consider it the role of the state to enforce the duty to be a good friend. If I treat you badly in spite of a long-standing bond between us, that may make me a bad person. But short of physically assaulting you or something similarly clear-cut, the police don’t knock on my door just because I act like a dick. Someone can’t call 999 and have me fined if I stand you up when we’re supposed to meet for coffee.

Okay, you might think, but the act in question here was evidently far graver than something trivial like missing a drink. This ‘friend’ facilitated attempted suicide.

Well, indeed, but we’ve got to remember that irrespective of a longstanding social norm against the acceptability of this act, it is, in law, perfectly legal, and presumably not only for practical reasons. We do tend to think that under rights to self-determination and so on, if someone wishes to make such choices then they are to be left alone, however ill-advised those choices may seem.

So what this boils down to is the law prosecuting someone for being a bad friend that facilitated the performance of a perfectly legal act. Insofar as the law is as indifferent to someone’s decision to burn themselves as they are to my decision to eat kale in the morning, why doesn’t it ignore the petrol-deliverer in the same way it doesn’t impede my Ocado delivery van?

Perhaps this just strikes at foolishness inherent in the law against assisted suicide. Even if you think that there is some place for such a law, you could and should still worry about ‘assistance’ being read so loosely here that we’re no longer talking about feeding pills to people (or analogously in this case, ourselves pouring the petrol and lighting the flame). Now, assistance means just knowingly buying the tools which the person then uses entirely independently. So if I claimed to be suicidal and simply ask you to buy me a rope, British law is now saying you could be setting yourself up for a decade in jail. And again, this in spite of the fact that my use of the rope to hang myself would be legal.

Are there any other examples of laws which forbid us from facilitating further legal acts, other than on this one issue, where all coherency and common sense seems to evaporate?

A Springsteen bucket list.

I’ve been thinking about which songs are left for me to experience live before Bruce becomes too old and packs up for good (quite a while yet, I trust). After twelve concerts (ten in little over a year), I’ve ticked off far more rarities than most. In the six gigs this summer I think I worked out I heard over ninety different songs performed. I’ve heard DarknessBorn in the USA and Born to Run all the way through, early gems like Lost in the Flood and Wild Billy, plenty from Tracks like Cynthia, TV Movie and Roulette after that mad night in Cardiff, and River rarities like I’m A Rocker and Ramrod for the same reason. And Man at the Top, Save My Love and Reason to Believe. I’ve also seen everyone from Tom Morello and Paul McCartney to John Fogerty and Eric Burdon join him on stage.

Still, much greed remains. I’m still to even hear the guy’s greatest song (listed last here), and some of my very favourites are yet to make a spontaneous appearance. I managed to trim things down to a special seven. Here’s hoping for a return next summer.

Blinded by the Light.

I’m only interested in hearing this acoustic, as heard above. Something about the quietness really brought out the playful absurdity of the lyrics.

Crush On You.

I made signs this summer for this quick throw-away, but no luck. “You’re a walking, talking reason to live” is a really lovely, under-looked romantic line.

Fade Away.

Just one other River request, and quite a contrast with the last one. A real soul-crusher.

Better Days.

Have a couple of verses ever better captured the energising thrill of the rediscovery of romantic love?

Kitty’s Back.

Kitty is very rarely back, but when she is she must steal the fucking show.

Ain’t Good Enough For You.

Yeah, like hell this is an outtake. It’s one of those classic bittersweet Springsteen paradoxes, where the joyful tempo just utterly jars with the self-flagellation inherent in the lyrics. I hope I hear it at a time when I can laugh it off. It looks like ecstasy for the crowd.

New York City Serenade.

Any true fan’s Holy Grail. Hear this live and I would die happy, drowning in my own tears.

Various matters.

Two days before term starts is an odd time to feel the urge to (at least briefly) blog again, but I thought it was worth penning some updates on various things, so here goes nothing. Take this as a quickly and loosely written recent academic and activist diary.

1 – My summer essays on the problem of evil and the paradox of tragedy are all done. They’re online here and here, but I’m not sure if I’m endorsing them yet. It’s immensely difficult to judge, after spending so long dwelling on such specific problems, whether what you argued is any good. My position on and solution for the paradox inherent in our enjoyment of tragic artworks feels especially banal and obvious to me by now. I guess it’s over to others to decide whether my claim that it’s all about psychological insight is plausible and useful. The philosophy of religion essay is far more controversial and daring, perhaps foolishly so. I basically conclude that theists are logically compelled to deny the existence of evil, believe there is sufficient reason for tsunamis, rape and so on, and be rationally glad for their existence accordingly. But again, I did think the arguments for that are clearly there. To deny it would be to somehow claim an all-loving and powerful being exists who allows events to obtain for which there are no good reason. The theist has insufferably big philosophical bullets to bite either way.

2 – Since I will have met by distribution requirements by Christmas, my last essay can be a bit more daring and defy the ordinary categories. They can allocate it wherever they see fit once it’s done. I intend on making full use of this situation by – gasp – writing on romantic love. I think it speaks volumes about philosophy that something so integral to the lives and aspirations of most people tends to be totally sidelined in studies of ethics. So re-tilting the balance there slightly and exploring an under-studied sphere of value seems especially worthwhile. There’s a whole host of questions to be considered here. Some of the key things I’m keen to explore:

  • Is the value of romantic love, insofar as people tend to understand it as seeking some sort of union with the interests and desires of another, in tension with the value of individual autonomy that tends to underpin liberalism?
  • What do people mean when they say they want to be loved not for any particular reasons, but just because of the fact that they are who they are?
  • What do people even mean when they talk of romantic love!
  • What distinguishes romantic love from parental or familial love?
  • What distinguishes it from mere friendship?
  • If you love someone because they have certain properties, what happens when you meet someone who better instantiates those properties? Are you rationally committed to loving them more?
  • Given love is understood as a union, how are we to accommodate the thought that it can also be a feeling that isn’t reciprocated?
  • Can we love animals?
  • Insofar as romantic love causes one to have a warped perspective on the world – we become blind to another person’s flaws – do we not have an epistemic duty to avoid such feelings, so we can judge the world more objectively?
  • Is romantic love necessarily exclusive, or at  least very limited?

It’s amazing that I haven’t touched on any of these fascinating and important questions after four whole years of studying philosophy. I’m really excited to just plough through my historical Hume supervision essays this term and get on with this final paper as soon as possible.

3 – I met my thesis supervisor today to discuss what direction I’ll be taking things in next year. Having decided last term on the title ‘Liberalism and Education’, he suggested there were two routes I could go down. I could either write a modern analytical paper on the various technical strands of modern liberalism, and see which ones can be best reconciled with my intuitions about how things like state neutrality should colour the content of the national curriculum. Or, I could delve into the great historical thinkers and texts and bring their neglected insights to bear on modern debates. Obviously, it’s the latter possibility that has finally got me excited about studying again. It’s practically a licence to spend my final six months as a student just reading the likes of Dewey, Aristotle and my beloved Rousseau (and finally, Emile!), before explaining what lessons we can and should learn about how our conception of education should be framed accordingly. Awesome.

4 – Moving on to activist rather than academic matters, I’ve met with the guys running Oxford Students for Animals this week and helped out on their stall at the Freshers Fair. Plans for the year are taking shape. I should be sending off for leafleting resources from Animal Aid, Compassion in World Farming and so on soon with an eye to regularly campaigning on Cornmarket Street on weekends. The campaign to increase vegetarian and vegan options in college dining halls will continue. I’m also keen to find out information about the meat suppliers of various restaurants in Oxford, so rather than only listing vegan and vegetarian-friendly places on OSFA’s website, ethical meat offerings could be listed, and those using clearly factory-farmed products could also be flagged. Since some people involved are likely to be strict vegetarians who think no meat-eating is permissible, though, the ‘ethical meat’ listings might be a difficult sell. I’ve also started to make contact with local Christians who seem keen to help draft letters to churches requesting transparency about their meat suppliers, and demanding an end to their complicity in factory farming if it exists as expected.

5 – I may have mentioned previously that I wrote a briefing paper for Giving What We Can last month on the problem of micronutrient bioavailability, which may mean that their recently endorsed charity Project Healthy Children – which mass-fortifies food with basic vitamins and minerals – is sadly nowhere near as effective as was previously thought. It looks like my worries will be aired on the GWWC blog very shortly – I’ll link to it once that’s up. The research paper is here, in the mean time.

6 – With little need of persuasion, Magdalen Film Society is now in principle on board with donating profits at the end of the year to the Against Malaria Foundation – GiveWell and GWWC’s #1 rated charity. This is wonderful news, and by far the best thing I’ll be responsible for after four years on the committee there.

7 – I’ve got a 9am start for a six hour day at the Careers Service tomorrow, learning tedious information about navigating the world of job applications. My CV is taking shape as I aim to shoot for a few big media opportunities, but more likely settle for more important and secure non-profit work. If anyone has comments on how it reads and looks, please get in touch. Any and all criticism will be much appreciated.

That’s that. I’ll end with some Springsteen. I finally got around last week to downloading a bootleg of the Cardiff gig from back in July. This one has practically been on repeat on my iPod ever since:

The first time I heard it – then knowing nothing about Eric Burdon and the Animals, and thinking when the guy walked on stage that it was some sort of joke – I remember thinking that “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is basically the bottom line of every big song Bruce has ever written, from Thunder Road (“It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win”) to Dancing in the Dark (“There’s something happening somewhere”) and more obvious candidates like Born to Run and Land of Hope and Dreams. It was reassuring, then, to find Bruce admitting as much in his SXSW keynote speech, whilst also offering quite a tribute to what their music meant and still means to him. I retrospectively feel so, so privileged to have witnessed this one.

Night, all.

Swiss chard, leek and lentil stew.

A busy week accounts for little posting recently, but I wanted to get this dish up that I’ve been tweaking for a while now. It’s certainly comfort food full of savoury flavours and soft textures, but the dill, orange zest and lemon juice help to freshen it up. You can save some time, money and effort by using stock cubes if you wish, but with due disapproval from yours truly. Serves two.

For the vegetable stock (include four or more of):

1 carrot.

1 lemongrass stalk.

1 garlic clove, peeled.

1 onion, peeled.

A handful of parsley, thyme and dill.

1 bay leaf.

Half a celery stalk.

500ml water.

For the stew:

500ml vegetable stock.

1 leek, finely chopped.

100g Swiss chard, roughly shredded.

100g puy lentils.

100g green lentils.

15g dill, finely chopped.

15g parsley, finely chopped.

Zest of one orange.

1 tbsp lemon juice.

1 tbsp olive oil.

Salt and pepper.

First, prepare the vegetable stock. Place the vegetables and herbs in a saucepan, add the water and bring to the boil. Simmer for thirty minutes and then discard the ingredients.

When the stock is ten minutes from finishing, heat the olive oil in a saucepan and fry the leeks for the remaining time. Add the chard, lentils and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for another twenty five minutes.

Drain any remaining stock. Now add the orange zest, lemon juice, dill and parsley.  Stir and season to taste.

Every chef is an activist.

I love that line from Dan Barber in this El Pais article about sustainability movements. It’s more true than most will appreciate. As Michael Pollan likes to put it, in the world of food politics we get to vote three times a day: each time we eat, we send a signal about our preferences, and convey either a disregard for health – our own and the environment’s – or due concern for it. And there’s no better way to take control of one’s diet and the world around you than to stop surrendering the work of cooking to the supermarkets by buying their hyper-processed meals, and instead doing the assembly of natural ingredients ourselves. I truly believe our civic duties in this realm are greater than they’ll ever be in the ballot box.