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March 19, 2007

Brief bio

As his request for the spring fund raiser Chris asked me to talk a little bit about myself. So, here goes.

I was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1978. I grew up in the nearby suburb of Port Moody. My dad is a professor at Simon Fraser University and my mom was originally trained as a printmaker (she's now a grant facilitator, after a stint as a prop coordinator for movies).

Dad studies drugs and behavior. In addition to his academic work, he's always been very active in drug policy reform. I like to say that I was raised on Soros formula. Dad and his brother Dale, a philosophy professor, have become pretty well-known media personalities in greater Vancouver. Dad handles most of the B.C. Skeptics-related interviews and Dale talks about civil liberties.

I'm one of two kids. My brother, Loren, is three years younger than me. Loren is finishing up his undergraduate degree in communications.

One of the more unusual things about my childhood was that I started attending classes at Simon Fraser when I was 12. I took my first university philosophy course the summer I turned 13. It was an introductory survey course taught at the downtown Vancouver campus. I was hooked.

I've been involved with political campaigns since I was 16. I was an active member of the New Democratic Party throughout high school. One of my favorite memories from that period was my drives with George in his orange Volvo. George was the oldest guy working on the campaign. He was in his mid-seventies, a retired blue collar worker and trade unionist. He drove a beat-up orange Volvo. The folks at the campaign office would fill up the car with lawn signs and send the two of us out to put up signs. I would navigate. As we drove, George would tell me about politics and unions and the various struggles that he'd been through in his career as an organizer.

I kept going to high school while I was studying part-time at SFU. I was an avid member of my high school debate team. After I graduated from high school, I enrolled at SFU on a full scholarship. At first I was pre-med. I majored in psychology and continued to take as many philosophy courses as I could. I also volunteered at the treatment information project at AIDS Vancouver, helping clients research their medical options. This was just on the cusp of the protease inhibitor revolution, so it was an exciting time to be helping out.

I also got a job at Starbucks, or as I told people, I started dealing to support my habit. Between the free pound of coffee a week and unlimited espresso drinks on my shifts, I'm sure they lost money on me. On one of my shifts a woman came in and handed me a sheet of paper with festooned with hearts, flowers, and multiple fonts. It took me a second to figure out that this was a resume, specifically the resume of future FOX pundit Rachel Marsden.

After I graduated, I moved to Montreal to be closer to Darcy (DJA). We had met online at Salon Table Talk, back in the glory days of free TT. I was working as a technical writer, writing manual on occupational health and safety. Darcy got a scholarship to New England Conservatory in Boston. By that point, I had decided that I wanted to study with Daniel Dennett at Tufts in nearby Medford. So, we packed up the U-Haul and moved to Boston. I got a job writing technical manuals for bond trading software. I got accepted to the M.A. program at Tufts and enrolled in the spring.

Grad school at Tufts was wonderful. I went in thinking that philosophy was just a brief conceptual boot camp. I needed to get clear on certain methodological questions before I could pursue my MD/PhD. I ended up applying to philosophy PhD programs instead. Like most philosophy grad students, I was deeply ambivalent about the field. I didn't like the slick metaphysics that was fashionable at the time. I felt like too many interesting and difficult problems were being ignored because they weren't "philosophical" enough. I knew that there were only one or two programs in the country that I was interested in. By this time, I was so in love with New York that I really couldn't envision a life anywhere else.

After 9/11, I trained as an EMT. I figured it would be a good way to earn extra money while I did my philosophy PhD. Things didn't turn out the way I planned. After we graduated from our respective programs, DJA and I moved to New York. Darcy wanted to start a big band. I was working on my PhD applications. As I was training for the EMT licensing physical, I started getting work as a medical writer through an old friend from Table Talk who had been in the business for a few years.

The blackout was my initiation to life as a New Yorker. Darcy and I had signed a lease in Brooklyn, but we were still living in Boston. I was commuting to New York on the $10 Chinatown bus for job interviews. When the lights went out, I'd just spent all my cash for my ticket home and some potstickers. My bus was canceled. I was stuck in Manhattan in a suit and 3-inch heels. I had only the vaguest idea of where my apartment might be. So, I decided to just keep walking over the bridge in the general direction of Brooklyn. Eventually I noticed that all the white people on the bridge were trudging along in the gathering darkness, but everyone else was hitching rides on the trucks that were picking up strangers in the next lane. So, I jumped on the back of a truck with a bunch of other New Yorkers and got a ride most of the way home. Luckily, my cellphone batteries lasted long enough for me to find my way back to my place by the light of my LCD screen.

A few weeks later we moved for real. Suddenly, I was making far more as a part-time pharmaceutical copywriter than I could hope to make as a full-time EMT in New York. I eventually got an agency job writing copy for big brands like Epi-Pen. I hated it. I couldn't wait to escape the corporate world and start grad school. I had an informal invitation to study with my philosophical hero at Columbia, but the philosophy department slashed its entering class by 2/3 that year and my guy was already supervising several grad students, so I didn't make the cut.

It was about this time that I started to blog. I thought Majikthise was going to be an academic philosophy blog with a little politics on the side. Eventually, the politics totally eclipsed the philosophy. I found the blog publishing schedule wasn't conducive to philosophical writing. Besides, it was a very exciting time politically. Actually, it was more of a terrifying and depressing time, but you know what I mean. 

Once I was out of the academic world, I was able to admit to myself that I didn't feel as passionate about philosophy as I did about politics. To my surprise, I found that I could make a living as a freelance copywriter and still have plenty of time for blogging.

At that point, I was very anxious because, for the first time since kindergarten, I didn't have a clear mission in life.

Then Hurricane Katrina changed everything. New Orleans was still 80% under water when I got an email from a blogger who had somehow gotten funding for a blogger reporting team to go to New Orleans. Our mission was two-fold, reporting from the scene and distributing a huge number of donated frequent flier miles to evacuees in Baton Rouge. I said I would go, even though it meant quitting the lucrative long-term assignment I'd landed on Madison Avenue. It turned out my boss had been a stringer before he joined the corporate world. He still missed it. It was going to be miserable and scary and low-paid and insecure, he said. He asked me whether I really wanted this life. I suddenly knew that I did.

After I got back from New Orleans, I started doing more blog-based reporting projects. The next month I went to Austin to cover Tom DeLay's first court appearance. I was still doing some sporadic pharma work to pay the bills--but I could still get away to cover exciting stories like the Lamont/Lieberman primary. I also started writing for AlterNet and selling photographs. By the time the 2006 mid-term elections rolled around, I was determined to quit pharma cold turkey. It was time to find out whether I could hack it as a full-time journalist. I had written my last reprint carrier.


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Is your mother Jewish?

Nice bio. For me it was a bit different, I started out hating philosophy; now I love it more and more.

Your move was Canada's loss. :-)

Didn't realize you are so young. You have a good background in a lot of stuff that makes for a solid resume. Being young you have time to develop depth. I don't mean you don't seem to have heft now, but I mean to really work on your ideas to find more and add to all that we share. If I had any money to spare I'd add to your kitty.

NDP has no parallel in the States, so similar young people here don't get the right sorts of background in ordinary grassroots politics. So I imagine you seem pretty forceful to your contemporaries.

Hi Lindsay, thanks for sharing this with us. If you have time to reflect on it sometime, I'd be interested to know how you think your philosophy training has helped your journalism career. It's important that people know that academia isn't the only career possibility for those who study philosophy.

my philosophical hero at Columbia

Who's that?

Hi Lindsay, I was wondering if Shadia Drury had any influence on you. In my opinion, her work is is a major contribution in understanding the neo-con movement and their influence in contemporary politics.

What was your nym on Tabletalk?
I was "Nemo Buttlips".

Yeah, NDP. Formed from an amalgamation of things like the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The NDP is what a socialist party in the United States would look like if they hadn't been crushed by post-World War I anti-radical sentiment, and then by McCarthyism. There was a cooperative commonwealth based radical party in Washington State during the depression, but eventually it got co-opted, no pun intended, by the Popular Front of the Communist Party and stopped a lot of what it was doing, instead focussing on supporting foreign policy in Europe.

Cooperative Commonwealth, End Poverty in California, which was Upton Sinclair's party, it could have been something.

In a majoritarian system, the only way such a party could succeed is by having a specific local appeal. It doesn't even have to be regional; it could be based on an urban-rural divide, like the Populists and the Progressives. To see what I'm talking about, consider Australia, Britain, and Canada. In Britain, there's an NDP-like party, the Liberal Democrats, but most of its original power comes from having been centrist and only become the leftmost party when Blair moved Labour to the right. In Australia, the National Party is really the rural version of the Liberal Party. In Canada, there's a similar relationship between the NDP and the Liberals, except that the NDP is competitive in western Canada and the Liberals are competitive in eastern Canada.

In the US, there are therefore two ways of making this happen without going for proportional representation. One is the British way, which involves a Unity '08 party drifting leftward; that way is probably unavailable, because American politics is now swinging left, whereas the Liberal Democrats became the leftmost party because Blair swung British politics to the right. Given that the Democrats are jettisoning social issues from their list of core values, such a party could also bill itself as the only pro-choice, pro-gay party, just like the Liberal Democrats are the only consistently pro-EU, pro-free trade party in Britain.

The Canadian way involves something like a Northern/Southern split. But in such a system, the Northern Democrats will hardly get any more liberal; what is likely to happen is that the Southern Democrats will become more conservative, creating a system similar to that of pre-1994 American politics.

And the Australian way involves an urban/rural split, except that the fringe party is likely to be urban. Such a party will likely have some reformist elements similar to those of moderate Republicans like Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg. It's a lot easier for the Republicans to split this way, obviously; the Democrats are already running people who would be quite comfortable with social democracy in safe districts. In other words, a Canadian/Australian situation already exists in the US, except that in Canada the Liberals and NDP are called two different parties that govern as a coalition while in the US, blue dogs and the Progressive Caucus are called one party.

Then Hurricane Katrina changed everything.

Bill HR 1224 would help provide affordable housing for low-income families affected by Katrina.

Oxfam says, "The bill will increase transparency and accountability for how states spend federal dollars; protect the rights of public housing residents; and help create rental housing for disabled, homeless, and elderly people. There are also amendments to help people still receiving FEMA assistance to move out of trailers and into rental housing."

The vote is scheduled for March 20. Contact your representative today.

Thank you!

You grew up in PoCoMo? Wow. Too bad you left -- the NDP could definitely use you. It's hard to believe that anyone could do much to help the moribund progressive political scene in the US, but if there was, they'd probably be a lot like you.

I mistyped the Katrina bill number above. It's HR 1227.

thank you for the bio, I just contributed $25

Even though I disagree with you on many, if not most, points, I think you are one of the most reasonable blogger-advocates of liberal ideology I have observed. Amanda Marcotte attracts more attention because of her emotive language, but your posts tend to be better reasoned, I think.

University classes at twelve, huh? I've seen my fair share of kids like that. About half of them end up testaments to the most excruciatingly depressing modes of adult mediocrity, dysfunction, and underachievement.

The other half rule the world.

Best of luck staying on the good side.


Thanks for writing this. Politics' gain is very much philosophy's loss; but I hope you yourself will be happy what you're doing anyway.

I just noticed your tag line has changed from "analytic philosophy and liberal politics" to "By Lindsay Beyerstein, freelance journalist". Is that recent?

Love your work.
I would recomend your blog to others if I knew how to pronounce it. Would you provide a phonetic guide?

@Eric: Yup, I've got a Jewish mother. Her she comments as suzib on the blog.

The blog's name is pronounced "majik-thighs"--It's not a sexual reference. Majikthise is a minor character in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Majikthise and his buddy Vroomfondel are philosophers who call a wildcat strike when the supercomputer Deep Thought threatens to give the answer to Life The Universe and Everything.

I didn't think too carefully about the pronunciation when I never thought anyone would say it out loud.

If I'd known that the blog's name was going to become my nickname, I might have chosen a different name for the blog. I've been at events where someone will recognize me and yell across the bar "Hey, Majikthise!" That's sometimes awkward, but I just go with it.

Thanks for the story. Been a sometime reader for I guess a couple years now, good to see you are making the full on transition.

The politics does seem to transcend the deep thoughts nowadays, it is an interesting time to pay attention to the changing world...and maybe have a chip or two in the game.

Canada's loss, US' gain.

Love your work. Loved Vancouver.

You have done some of the most careful thinking on press issues, e.g.
so the slow morph to journalism with emphasis on politics is looking pretty naturual.

You ever figure out how many of your hits are due to the blogname alone? I have half of my hits comming from underware traffic by virtue of my own thoughtlessness. It will haunt me if I ever show my face at a blogging convention.

You can't be everything. I think I'v been reading here since before June/06 where the archives cut off. The place used to be a bit more homey and the picture did you no favors but there was more philosophy in the air. It was exciting times. But if your public wants to own you, they had better pay a lot more.

Success for others in blogging looks like merchandising.
Even if it is not a forumula for success [you know, like the way the big leaguers do 6+ posts a day all at the same pitch of outrage all in one or two seleted genre of topical liberal subject areas so as to become a brand name and have a product] I really like the variety you have had...who else gives us the bat-eating centipede? That breadth marks a liberally educated mind unfettered by the sameness of elite literary monthlies but at as good a depth when the subject matters.

We attend with interest and good wishes whatever unfolding is to be written in the next installment of this bio.

tell people its a "Chermin name! Dit they effer hear "Bee-thovens" 5th symphony? Nein! its Bay-tofen.
Und likevize, you can tell them:

"Dats Mahjikt-hise, to you!"

With a name like Bayerstein, you might pull it off.

"I didn't like the slick metaphysics that was fashionable at the time."

(Gasp!) You mean ... you didn't like tripping out on wild thought experiments with no basis in reality as a means to understanding reality? And you didn't like feeling one intuition, and then indulging another intuition that seemed to contradict it, and then trying to figure out what your intuition was about how best to settle this clash of intuitions?

When you attended SFU, did you take a philosophy class with Norman Swartz, or Don Todd?

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