Context

Chris Kraus wrote a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice. In her letter Kraus writes about being called “an obsessive” and she shares the story of a French poet Antonin Artuad whose poetry was rejected by a revered French magazine editor. She sets up his story to explain what it means to be obsessed by something, and how writing helps us build our dialog and communication skills.  One section of her writing that I particularly liked was a short sentence that brought back my focus of awareness and exploration, “Nothing exists without a source.” Writes Kraus, “It is important to Contextualize everything.”

 

I do believe that sometimes in our lives we can become too caught up in trying to understand the deeper meaning, the hidden thoughts that lead to action, or any ulterior motive behind another persons words or actions, but in general, I think we often view the world through a superficial lens. In our romantic relationships we evaluate every word, text message, phone call, and winky face sent to us as if we were hired crime scene detectives, at least when we first start dating, but we quickly begin to make assumptions about our loved one and return to a comfortable place where we quit looking for the deeper meaning that influenced our actions and those of our companion.

 

In her letter, Kraus used Artuad’s life story to show that we can find deeper meaning in the world when we work to better understand the context of the world around that which we focus on. In order to truly understand something we must know where it came from, what influenced its origin, and what purpose it was supposed to serve.  By taking a microscope to a situation we can make better judgements and begin to see the multiple perspectives surrounding a single event. The better we become at this the more we will be able to connect with others, and the more patience and compassion we can develop for those who deserve it.

Minimal Ethics

In his book, The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer discusses living a life driven by moral excellence. The secular philosopher builds on the idea of moral good based on our ability to reason and the faculties of mind which allow us to rationalize society and measure the positivity we add to the universe.  Singer explains that we can be very ethical in our approach to life, mostly ethical, or somewhat ethical in our actions without truly pausing to consider our ethics and our actions or decisions.  Throughout his book he contends that we can begin to understand just how ethical we truly are if we can honestly evaluate our actions through self awareness and through the difficult process of quantifying and measuring the benefits of our actions.

 

Singer writes, “Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.” In this sense Singer is approaching the world with the view that a minimalist lifestyle should be promoted if we want to do the most good possible with the time and resources we have available to us.  We should look for areas where we have surplus, and find ways to share those surpluses with people who are not as fortunate.  However, he would advocate that we find the most effective use of those resources to make the biggest possible impact with them.

 

Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer explains that simply directing spare resources toward charities and the disadvantaged does not reach the most people and provide the most good. Finding an area where your extra resource will go the furthest and provide the most for those who are in need is what Singer argues should be the main goal of an effective altruist (his term for the most ethical individuals). An example from the book of an area where an effective altruist can have the greatest impact is in developing countries in Africa and other tropical regions. The greatest thing that can be done to prevent unnecessary deaths in these countries is the provision of bed nets for a greater portion of the population.  A single bed net can save a life for roughly $100, and it is hard to find another form of charitable giving or donation that can have as great an impact for as little of a cost.  Singer presents multiple examples of powerful uses of extra resources throughout his book.

 

He also addresses areas of confusion and misrepresentation in ethical behaviors and actions.  Singer contends that making donations impulsively, in situations where donations are being asked for in front of grocery stores or after tragic events, does not do as much good as we tell ourselves. According to Singer donations during these moments may be beneficial and help those involved, but we do not donate in these situations to be altruistic. The donations we make in these situations serve more to a help us avoid feelings of guilt, and we should never consider our own guilt when considering charitable donations.

The Strength of Concrete

Mark Miodownik explains our planets dependence on concrete in his book, Stuff Matters, which is an exploration of the built world and the materials that make the world what we see.  Miodownik explains that the first concrete developed on our planet came from the Romans, but the technology was not perfected until more recent times.  He also tells the story of how reinforced concrete came to be when a potter found that he could produce cheap concrete pots and boost their durability by setting the concrete around a steel internal skeleton. The strength provided allowed his pots to hold up to dropping, shipping, and the general wear and tear of the gardening world.
I find Miodownik’s section on concrete fascinating. Prior to reading his book I had never stopped to consider what truly went into producing concrete and concrete structures.  from our sidewalks, to buildings, to dams and barriers, we see concrete everywhere and Miodownik reflects on our perceptions when we see things everywhere.  He writes about our normal tendency to see those common and everyday things as simple and unimportant, when oftentimes, as in concrete, they are complex, crucial, world altering innovations.
While most of us may not appreciate just how important concrete is and we may not understand just how complex concrete is, there is an understanding in our country that our infrastructure needs some TLC.  And it is not just people in the United States who know their structures need some love, “To prevent stone or concrete structures being similarly affected, maintenance of their fabric needs to be carried or every fifty years or so.” In this quote Miodownik is explaining the effect of general wear and tear on concrete.  As materials heat up or cool down, as happens yearly due to the temperature changes of the seasons and days, they expand and contract. Reinforced concrete is a wonderful material in respect to contraction and expansion because the concrete itself and the internal steel skeleton expand and contract at almost identical rates.  This prevents the steel from busting out of the concrete and keeps the steel protected and the concrete free from cracks.  But overtime the concrete does develop micro-fractures, which grow into visible fractures, which allow more water in, and become clear chips and breaks in the concrete.  This erodes and breaks down the concrete structures we build in the same way that nature breaks down the mountains around us (or at least around me living in Reno Nevada at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains).
I think what I like about Miodowniks quote is that it shows the impermanence of what feels like our most robust building materials.  We may look at concrete structures and imaging their hulking frames will last forever, but what material science shows us is that they are constantly in a battle to be broken down. Even the mountains which define borders and seem to be natural strongholds of the earth are not permanent as weather batters them down.  If you cannot enjoy the science behind the concrete, hopefully you can at least appreciate the brevity of its existence in the long term life of the planet, or appreciate our perspective on the material, seeing it as an unyielding monolith which ultimately is brought down by some water and wind.