ad astra per alia porci

wedding singer obsession
August 26, 2009, 3:29 am
Filed under: diary, the arts

It’s a mix of humour and sadness that appeals greatly to me.

Adam Sandler was excellent, and Drew looked so pure.

working, once removed

It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.

– Anaxagoras

What follows is an attempt to map the overlapping territories intimated by the phrases “meaningful work” and “self reliance”. Both ideals are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense…

The idea of agency I have tried to illustrate in this book is different. It is activity directed toward some end that is affirmed as good by the actor, but this affirmation is not something arbitrary and private. Rather if flows from an apprehension of real features of the world… [A person’s] individuality is thus expressed in an activity that, in answering to a shared world, connects him to others… For in fact we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each on a world that is not of our making…

We usually think of intellectual virtue and moral virtue as being very distinct things, but I think they are not…

– Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work


I love watching Bear Grylls in Man v. Wild, gallivanting around and successfully surviving in the wild. Just to be fair, I love Ray Mears in Survivorman too, for his tenacity and outrageous courage in living and filming his escapades in the wilderness absolutely alone. I love watching Mike Rowe in Dirty Jobs, explaining and unveiling the hidden world of people who do jobs that nobody else wants or dares to do. I love watching crab harvesters in The Deadliest Catch bring in cages upon cages of humungous Alaskan king crabs, braving the choppy, dark waters of the Bering Straits and working unending hours on the rain-soaked decks of crabbing boats in the unforgiving freezing rain and snow, and going back home to a warm fireplace and relieved spouses with their pockets full of cash.

What attracts me is the frank, refreshing honesty in what they do, and an immense sense of physicality.It is experience at its most intense and raw, and there is no fudging because the results are there for all and sundry to see. You either survive or you don’t; the crab count cannot be doctored. There is no reliance on easy talk and smiles, things that people will term as “charm” and “charisma” (but to me just exercises in hypocrisy).

Interesting enough, for all its merits and honesty, I find myself simultaneously a voyeur, peering over the edge into the hidden worlds of people who I know I will never find the will to emulate and society does not give sufficient respect, gratitude or attention to. A touch of fantasy and impossibility separates me from their actual worlds.

Fortunately enough, I chanced upon a book which articulates and analyses what was to me an instinctive gut feeling of respect and admiration and gives me the ah-ha! moment. In his paean to the manual trades Shop Class As Soul Craft, Matthew B. Crawford makes a compelling case for a new appreciation for the manual trades, and critiques the pieties of conventional conceptions of what constitutes proper work.

My reading habit tends to be influenced by my current situation. I Googled and Amazoned this book after reading about it in an article in Newsweek about work satisfaction while (rather aptly) commuting to work in a law firm in my white shirt and black pants. I found the Amazon reviews on Crawford’s book as well as Crawford’s article in the New Atlantis and NYT on the same subject interesting and relevant enough to warrant reserving the book from the library.

It did not disappoint. I was consistently able to relate to what Crawford had to say and compare it to my experiences as a legal intern. My prior uneasiness with and slight disdain for the majority of white collar jobs were articulated in logical argument.

In a nutshell, Matthew B. Crawford dispels notions that the manual trades do not engage the intellect and provide meaningful jobs that are stable and sheltered from the threat of outsourcing. In fact he argues that the blue collar trades . In doing so, he also critiques the current job landscape and the workplace’s tendency to dehumanise and ignore the intrinsic needs of humans, which include the need to see the tangible effect one’s work has on the world and fidelity to and fulfillment of objective standards and ideals.

The tradesman’s work is psychically and emotionally fulfilling. As Crawford points out, one of the central problems of the modern world is the lack of individual agency. Office workers feel as if they are mere cogs in a machine, with little or no power to shape their immediate reality and no tangible fruit of their labour to show. A mechanic in contrast sees the actual fruits of his labour, in what Crawford terms as the “overlap” between the “community of consumption” and the “community of work”. The small town furniture maker sees his product put to good use by the community and is enlivened by it; such a job caters to the basic human need for “rational activity, in relation to others” that serve a greater community good and need.

By the sheer nature of the work of a manual trade, a practitioner is a true student of his trade. He cannot fix a machine in his mind, and neither can he go guns blazing into a repair job without a measure of theory. He has to understand theory in the abstract and confront reality where theory often has to be adjusted or even discarded in order to achieve the goals of his trade.

Such work affirms the individual’s sense of Emersonian self-worth and situates him within a larger ethic and purpose, the sort that nourishes a soul and gives direction and stability to lives. In Crawford’s words:

The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

This book is also an exercise in breaking misconceptions about “menial labour”. The phrase suggests that such jobs do not engage the mind and are merely automated tasks that anyone can perform, and that such jobs are low status jobs. The former is not true since the mechanic must have a close understanding of his work in order to be good at it, but the latter is unfortunately a fact that is sadly dependent on prevailing social perceptions rather than any objective criteria.

Contrast the work of a skilled practitioner of a manual trade with the work of an average paper pusher in the office. The best and most accessible representation of the plight of the office worker is probably the Dilbert comic strip.

The world of Dilbert, with its crazy unfeeling bosses, excruciating boredom and inane bureaucracy is alarmingly close to real life. Life in a cubicle can be existentially absurd. We work with people we would not normally interact with in life, and chains of hierarchy command our uneasy relationships. There is silence, and very often boredom. Work is done mostly through impersonal emails and on paper. An intense sense of purposelessness, of “why am I doing this?” and “what am I doing here?” pervades work.

The advancement of the modern economy is very much predicated on the phasing out of physical jobs and its substitution with modern “thinking” jobs. However this comes at great social cost. People are essentially lost as cogs in machines; they do not know the effect of their work and the standards to which their work are judged (if they exist at all). If such standards do exist, they are usually so vague that they serve as nothing more than public relations material or useless platitudes. The cubicle dweller has trouble explaining in any degree of meaningful detail what exactly he is doing, without resort to jargon and artificial phrases. The lack of a clear standard through which to measure work results in irresponsibility since no one can be said to be underperforming or doing things wrongly, and this perpetuates immorality.

Crawford notes the modern tendency to separate thinking from doing in the white collar working place. Whatever can be done mechanically in a job is farmed out to “lower level workers” while thinking is the dominion of the supposedly highly-qualified intellectual class with their scores of degrees and qualifications. However as mentioned above, true learning comes from the synthesis of both theoretical learning and actual doing; the student that is only introduced to theory has a half-baked understanding of a subject and fails to appreciate the subject adequately.

The cubicle worker is in essence a hopeless idiot. Not in the derogatory, colloquial sense of the word, but in the sense that the word is used by Robert Pirsig in Zen and The Art of Motorcyle Maintenance and interpreted by Crawford: an idiot is a person who does not see his work as part of an involvement with something outside of himself, of larger concern and universal quality. An idiot teacher would only care about whether he has adhered to issued instructions from school authorities; he would not see that he is entrusted with the important task of expanding young minds and the need to maintain a personal concern for each individual student. An idiot is at bottom, to quote Crawford, a “solipsist”, that is a selfish person who only thinks about his own views.

Crawford posits that intellectual and moral virtue are in fact entangled. The mode and level of cognition that pervades our work determines the moral quality of the person. If a job reduces you to a mere instruction-following cog in the machine (e.g. the ubiquitious zombie helpline worker who can chant pre-written responses to genuine queries and problems without ever taking a real interest in the plight of the caller), chances are that your sense of morality and care for others will be reduced somewhat too. The current economic crisis is testimony to the destructive potential of such a pernicious approach to jobs; bankers respond only to cold profit while investment salesman see their role only as conduits for passing on poisoned investment products rather than the guardians of the financial well-being of their clients. They see themselves as cogs in a chain that foists financial products on the unsuspecting public, and their better judgment and perceptions are suspended. Crawford terms this as a process of “learned irresponsibility”, since responsibility and concern for others is the bedrock of most ethical systems. If this is true, the perceived degradation of the moral character of the modern man can be linked to the increased mechanisation and depersonalisation of jobs.

The predicament confronting the modern cubicle worker reminds me of various characters of some fine books I had the privilege to read. Biff and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman are probably the most striking examples. I tried to relate what I read to characters and people I knew, and these two sprang immediately to mind.

These are two characters who are hopelessly out of place in their materialistic society. Biff used to be a star quarterback and dreams of working in a ranch with his hands, but instead caved into pressure from his father to find a way to a job behind a corporate desk. Willy loves tending to his garden and really should find a job as a gardener, but instead he fell prey to the delusions of thinking that everyone should find a job in sales and live the high and successful life and embarked on a failed career as a traveling salesman. They have submitted to social pressure and sacrificed their better selves at the altar of social misconceptions of what constitutes proper work.

I believe that Biffs and Willys can be found everywhere in the world. We can see shades of them in ourselves and others. These characters, like many paper pushers, struggle in the modern working climate, which fails to nurture the best in men and fulfill our psychic and emotional needs. One particular phrase used by Crawford seem particularly appropriate here; to paraphrase Crawford, while “every job entails some kind of mutilation”, it is important to make sure that “none of this damage touches the best part of yourself”. A firefighter runs the risk of burns and bruises, but he does so because he is engaged in the noble and fulfilling endeavour of saving lives. However a modern cubicle worker might find it a struggle to state what exactly he is sacrificing time and his mental health for. Some things are simply too precious to be damaged, and many jobs in fact do just that.

Crawford’s writing sheds much light on my current situation. I am a law student, and if all goes smoothly, I should be starting a career as a lawyer soon after I graduate. However even before starting my career, I am able to see how lawyering has the potential to be at bottom unfulfilling and uncongenial to the better parts of one’s humanity. Since being a lawyer is one of the quintessential white collar professions, Crawford’s critique can almost be fully applied to lawyering.

My chief experience as a legal intern was that to be a lawyer is to live life by proxy. Instead of beingĀ  a businessman, lawyers aid businessmen in their endeavours, be it through drafting merger and acquisitions documents or negotiating terms of sales and purchase agreements. Instead of playing a sport, lawyers act for sportsmen. Instead of nurturing brands, lawyers are engaged in intellectual property work. It feels like an opt out, and whenever I hear fellow students that say they love the sea and hence they want to go into shipping law, I roll my eyes. If you really love the sea, why not be a sailor? Or a fisherman? Anything that actually gets you into direct contact with the object of fascination itself.

Seen from a more negative light, lawyers are mere cogs in the machine of commerce. They are conduits, the lubricant that allow things to move more smoothly. And they are paid a lot and work obscenely long hours, to do things that are not explicitly productive. There is no furniture at the end of a working day or project, except for maybe a few documents, and I bet that lawyers have a tough time explaining their work to any common person. The doctrines of consideration and undue influence are artificial, without any anchor on concrete reality.

Is there then some connection between the unfortunately emerging phenomenon of errant lawyers absconding with money and the nature of the job? Ethical standards exist for the lawyering profession in Singapore, but professional standards seem to be open to interpretation, and bending. There is really no correct way to draft a contract, or to make an argument in court. Subjectivity pervades the profession, and this is perhaps a reason why lawyers get jaded, and in the worst cases, downright immoral. Without the anchor of the sense of responsibility arising from being held to an objective standard and adhering to a larger ideal, lawyers tend to lose their internal moral compasses.

Till the day I finally reach some sort of congruence between my professed admiration for physical, tangible work and my chosen lawyering path, there remains a blotch of uncertainty and self-conscious hypocrisy confounding my heart and mind.


Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work

The original essay from the New Atlantis:

Matthew B. Crawford, “The Case for Working with Your Hands” in the NY Times:

Fukuyama’s review of the book:

August 2, 2009, 3:06 pm
Filed under: diary, training and nutrition | Tags: , , ,

Was obsessed with boxing matches for the last week. It’s the raw ferocity displayed by boxers and physicality of the sport coupled with the intellectual strategising required to win that attracts me. Underneath the blunt violence, taunts and verbosity lies dedication to the sport, intensive preparation and much sacrifice.

Muhammad Ali was particularly inspiring

Ali v. Foreman, Rumble in the Jungle:

As cheesy as a Rocky movie, but as inspiring in a heart thumping, masculine manner. Apparently one of the bloodiest fights, Ali was the clear underdog, but won through his smarts. He let Foreman pummel him and expend all his strength for the initial rounds, before coming back at him when he was tired in the later rounds. Foreman was to become a close friend of Ali later.

Ali v. Ernie Terrell

Terrell refused to call Ali by his Muslim name, and called him Cassius Clay instead. In the fight, Ali toyed with Terrell and tortured him for 15 rounds even though he was dominating. He could have knocked him out, but he refused to because he wanted to punish Terrell for his lack of respect. This he duly did, shouting “What’s my name” repeatedly while doing so.

Ali v. Frazier, Thrilla in Manila

The third time they faced each other, and one of the most brutal matches in boxing history. An appropriate climax to their bitter rivalry, this fight took a massive toll on both boxers.

Ali’s words

Perhaps the most memorable words came outside of the ring. Ali’s recipe for life.

life stops when the machine starts
August 1, 2009, 8:03 am
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , , , , ,

It is amazing how prescient EM Forster’s The Machine Stops is, given that it was written way back in 1909, long before the internet was invented and the digital age even begun. Forster manages to encapsulate the anxieties and pitfalls of embracing technology, by illustrating a world in which the substance and warmth of humanity has been replaced by cold efficiency and shallow satiation of the senses.

Forster paints a world in which sterile and faceless technology has infiltrated all aspects of life. People literally live in their own worlds, as they do everything in subterranean hexagonal cells with various machines that provide for all of their needs. The Machine, as it is rather blandly named, provides everything that humans need. No one lives above the ground anymore, and air outside in fact kills. Public gatherings are “clumsy” and have since been abolished. Travel is often unnecessary since telecommunications is so advanced.

The protagonist, Vashti, is a mother who lives apart from her son Kuno, and communicates with him only through imaging plates and knobs that adjusts broadcasted sound. Their relationship has the air of formality one would normally reserve for strangers and professional acquiantances, and Vashti was reluctant to physically visit her own son who wanted her counsel and help. Mother and child are literally and metaphorically distanced. Upon realising from him that he visited the surface, she was shocked, and disappointed with him, and saw him as a disgrace to the Machine, a formless entity to whom she owes a larger allegiance and more affection to.

The dystopian world Forster presents to us is clearly a product of fiction, but I can see parallels that world has with ours.

A key feature of life in the Machine is isolation. Life is solitary, and much of the “needless” social interaction has been either abolished or reduced to electronic means. Just as people in the story interact through electronic intermediaries, we too are doing the same. Instead of meeting physically, we meet online and talk through phones and email. Subcultures that excessively trumpets the call for technology to engulf every area of our lives like the “Otaku” culture in Japan are emerging. Electronic gaming has become to many an adequate substitute for physical sports and a hour or two in the sun.

While people of the Machine was physically and spiritually segregated, we are yet to reach that point. I guess physical seggregation is impossible in this increasingly congested planet, but spiritual and emotional seggregation is already creeping into our lifes. We plug into our iPods and tune out the world, people marry later and many do not marry at all. Traditional religions are losing their hold to individualistic materialism and secularism. Many of our children grow up playing single player electronic games, not board games or marbles with their kindergarden and primary school friends.

Marshall McLuhan famously opined that the medium is the message. The form of communication often has an impact on the message itself, and has the insidious and subtle power to transform the very relationships between people. There some truth to this, in relation to the impact of electronic communications has on human relationships.

Compare traditional post with email. Sending a mail by traditional post requires more effort; one has to buy sufficient stamps, find out the applicable postal rates, obtain the appropriate stationery, plan the letter, vet and edit drafts, set pen to paper, seal the letter, affix the stamp, get the address right and finally make the trip down to the post box to send the letter. Email in contrast is free and just require you to tap a few keys and click a few buttons.

When one sends a traditional letter, one has to be careful. Words must be carefully selected because there are constraints, like the amount of space on a post card and the need to maintain the aesthetics of the letter by avoiding cross-outs and minimising corrections. These concerns are less pronounced in the context of email.

Care requires effort. And effort is an expression of the amount of value one places on particular relationships. Effort has the peculiar ability to strengthen relationships through a cycle of positive feedback. The more effort a person puts into a relationship, the more likely the person will cherish his counterpart. In economic parlance, effort put into relationships can be termed as “sunk costs” which motivates a person to stick with preexisting relationships instead of seeking greener pastures.

I read from somewhere before that a handwritten letter is equivalent to a personal visit from a friend. Having received a few in the past month, I must say there is a large amount of truth to that statement. Nothing beats the sense of warmth and pleasant surprise that one gets upon receiving a letter from a cherished friend in the mail and reading about her feelings and reengaging with the happenings of her life.

In contrast emails are utilitarian and to some extent encourages careless thoughts and words. It is little wonder that email often find its greatest use in the calculative and coldly rational world of business, where time is everything, speed and efficacy is paramount and effective communication of facts and orders and not conveyance of emotion is required. However email as a mode of communication is sorely inadequate between friends.

Sadly the culture of letterwriting has been on the wane, with the prevalence of email and the ease of writing electronic letters. Email clearly has its place and usefulness, but my concern is that the ascension of email will come at the cost of another avenue through which human emotions and warmth can be cultivated.

However I am also confident that letterwriting will not be abolished. As the persistence of print in the information age suggests, people do recognise the inherent value of old technology. I hope the value of letter writing is not lost on future generations.

Just as I find room for hope, Forster is not a pessimist in his story. There is redemption at the end of the story. Mother and son kiss for the first time,the first and unfortunately last act of intimacy and love between them and an admission that life in the Machine is in fact not really life at all. Hopefully, just like how Vashti reaches a moment of epiphany, those of us that place blind faith in technology at the expense of our very humanity will too realise the truth before it is too late.