A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 22 February 2014

My take on a "Things to do Before you Die" list, part I

The list is taken from here.
  1. Fall in love at first sight
  2. Fall in love at the first glance
Personally I'd rather fall in love with someone for their personality than for their looks. Still, to each their own and all that.
  1. Visit all continents.
  2. Visit a pyramid.
  3. Visit Walt Disney World.
I'm not particularly interested in any of these per se. I suppose the pyramids would be interesting, but it would necessitate a journey to Egypt and I can't think what else I'd do there. See the sphinx, see the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and then what? I also have no particular desire to visit Oceania or either of the poles, and I'm quite content to enjoy Disney films without needing to go to a Disney theme park.
  1. Take a Zeppelin ride
  2. Take a hot air balloon ride.
The Zeppelin ride sounds like the kind of thing one would do purely in order to be able to say that one had done it. I can't imagine it's tremendously different to most other forms of air-flight. A hot-air balloon could be quite fun, however, providing you were doing it over a nice landscape.
  1. Go to a drive-in movie theater.
What's wrong with just a normal cinema?
  1. Ride a horse on my own.
I'm guessing that having ridden a donkey along a beach (Blackpool maybe?) doesn't count. This goes along with the hot-air balloon idea into the "This could be fun, but I could die perfectly happily without having done it." category.
  1. Tongue kissing a woman I don't know out of the blue
I've done this. It wasn't very interesting if I'm honest.
  1. Make a full-length film with complete artistic freedom.
  2. Write a book.
  3. Get a book published.
  4. Record a music album.
  5. Perform my own songs on-stage.
Making a full-length film would take a couple of years at the very least. Also, if you want other people's help then you're either going to need lots of money, or you'll need to allow them substantial control over the project. I've tried to write a book twice, and didn't get very far either time. Making it professionally publishable would take even more effort, and I don't think self-publishing on the internet counts. I do like the idea of recording and performing my own songs for a public audience, though.
  1. Have my own website.
Does a blog count?
  1. See at least 10,000 full-length films.
I suppose that across an entire lifetime this works out at a film every three days, which is reasonable. That said, I can generally find better things to do with my time.
  1. Go on a blind date.
I don't get the point of this nowadays. If you are looking for a long-term partner, you target your dating towards people with whom you would be compatible, through the use of dating websites. If you are looking for casual sex, you go on Tinder. Blind dates just throw that advantage away.
  1. Run nude through a public place.
I can sort of understand the fun of this one. But I've already tried crossdressing, which is close enough and I really don't feel the need to go any further.
  1. Test drive a sports car.
  2. Drive a humvee.
  3. Be hypnotized.
No interest in any of these, but I can understand why someone would be interested in at least the first two.
  1. Learn a martial art.
  2. Learn to play guitar and piano.
  3. Juggle 5 balls at a time.
I've done some basic martial arts, and I think I'd rather just learn to use a gun. I can already play piano and sort-of play guitar. Juggling might be interesting, but there are almost certainly other things which are more impressive, less common, and more interesting.
  1. Make love on an ocean beach.
  2. Make love in the sea.
  3. Make love in the middle of a street.
  4. Get road head.
The first three of these must surely be very uncomfortable. I understand the voyeuristic-naughtynaughty-whatever sex appeal of the places, but it's not like any of them are original. Road head might be fun for the recipient, but it would be one hell of a distraction from the road and it can't be the most comfortable position for the person giving oral sex. I assume you're not crouching by the pedals - that would, among other things, be stupidly dangerous - so presumably you're leaning across from the front passenger seat, taking care to avoid the gearstick, and that position can't be good for your back.
  1. Send a message in a bottle.
  2. Shower in a waterfall.
With regard to the first one, what's stopping you? Just get a bottle with a lid, come up with a message, and next time you're at sea throw the bottle into the ocean. Showering in a waterfall does sound genuinely fun, providing the weather is warm.
  1. Throw an evening party.
I've done this. Perhaps he means something more than just umpteen students turning up at a house or flat, getting drunk and possibly heading to a club, but in any case this hardly seems like something out of the ordinary.

  1. Sleep a night in a snow fort I built.
I've slept rough twice (once for charity, once because I was stranded) and I'd really prefer a nice comfortable bed, thank you very much.
  1. Fly a kite (again).
  2. Swim across a large lake, unassisted.
  3. Be able to locate 10 constellations in the sky.
  4. Flatten coins on a train track.
I really don't see the point of the last one, but otherwise these seem like small, achievable things that are at least worth trying.
  1. Live in my own apartment.
Better suggestion: Earn enough to be able to afford to live in my own apartment. Although even then I'm not certain I'd want to, it's nice having people around who you can talk to.
  1. Ride a mechanical bull.
  2. Ride a rollercoaster (again).
No interest in the first. If I were at a theme park then I would go on a rollercoaster again, but I don't see this happening until I have kids. Speaking of which:
  1. Attend a human birth.
I'd want to be there for my own childrens' births. Otherwise, I can think of better ways of spending my time.
  1. Visit an asylum.
  2. Write a letter to the editor.
  3. Write a letter to the editor that hasn't to do with yourself
Scratch that first, the internet will do fine. And letters to the editors of print media are being rendered obselete by online media and comments sections. Perhaps replace these with "Have a top-rated comment on an article at a major site discussing a major issue."
  1. Sleep with a person I love
  2. Have a kissing marathon with someone I love.
Replace "a person I love" with "my wife" and you're on.
  1. Make my own choreography of a dance.
  2. Dance it on-stage.
I've done the first and would like the second, although perhaps on-stage should be replaced with "at an actual ceilidh".
  1. Achieve spiritual freedom.
What does this even mean?
  1. Reach a mountain top (a high mountain).
Define "high". I've climbed several mountains, the highest of which was probably Snowdon. I suppose climbing one of the really high mountains (i.e. several thousand metres) might be fun and would be pretty satisfying, but if it took significant amounts of money and time then I could probably find better things to do with both.
  1. having sexual intercourse for the first time.
  2. Really love somebody
  3. Fall in love again and again.
  4. have sexual intercourse with a man.
  5. Make somebody fall in love with me.
  6. Have a woman say that she loves me
Having sex only once in your life doesn't really sound any better than dying a virgin in my opinion. Certainly, I'd rather die a virgin having made a decision to abstain from sex than have a series of meaningless one-night stands and ultimately fail to achieve romantic fulfilment. Falling in love sounds nice, provided it is a) reciprocated and b) with the kind of person with whom I would want to fall in love. If I had looser sexual mores, then perhaps I would be interested in seeing what it's like to have sex with another man. Falling in love for the sake of falling in love seems remarkably shallow, though. I'm also concerned about this "make somebody fall in love with me". As much as it would be a pleasant ego-boost if someone were to fall in love with me, there are really only two possible endings there: either the two of us end up romantically attached, in which case this description seems severely lacking in detail, or the other person ends up being emotionally hurt to some extent. I don't want them hurt, and the idea that I am somehow "making" them fall in love with me makes it sound like I've leading them on.
  1. Be exactly where you want to be, with whom you want to be, how you want it to be, etc. at least once in my life.
  2. Be exactly where you want to be, with whom you want to be, how you want it to be, etc. at least once in my life, and knowing everything is all right.
  3. Feeling one with the universe, and knowing life is great.
These seem to vague to be of any use. How exactly would you plan to accomplish these?
  1. Talking to a director I admire
Replace director with musical performer, author, philosopher, economist, composer, etc...
  1. Reciting my own poems before a public audience
If I were any good at writing poetry, then yes this would be a worthwhile achievement. Unfortunately, the only way I can see this happening is through some kind of "ordinary people's poetry reading day" thing in which the victims audience would have to sit through hour after unending hour of utter dross.
  1. Going on a long road trip with friends and enough money, without a specific destination.
I could do this, provided we had planned the trip so as to have plenty of interesting places we could visit. Meandering through northern Italy and southern France yes, wandering aimlessly around the Australian outback no.
  1. Run in competition for at least 10km.
I've run 5km in competition twice before, does that count? (Bear in mind I was about 9 at the time). And actually, I'm running a 10k race in May so this is a Thing To Do which will soon be under my belt.
  1. Having sexual intercourse with two women at one time.
My suspicion is that diminishing marginal returns set in pretty quickly with regard to sex partners. I only have one penis, after all.
  1. Run my own household.
If this means "raise a family" then my response is DUH. Of course I want to raise children. If it means "run a house by myself" then my response is AARGH THE INEFFICIENCY.
  1. Play tennis in a competition.
Specifically tennis? I've played in numerous chess and football tournaments, so do they count? That said, I have entertained the idea of taking up tennis at some point, it's a fun sport and I am merely mediocre at it (as opposed to remedial).
  1. Being in love with somebody who actually loves me, and knowing it, and living it.
Haven't we already had this?
  1. Spontaneously sing a "personal" song for somebody I love.
How spontaneous do you want? I've written music for specific people, and I suppose this would work as a Valentine's Day type thing. That said, I wouldn't put it as something to do before I die.
  1. Work on a filmset by someone I admire in one of the lowest jobs, without the people knowing it.
  2. Have some of my film-articles published.
Again, I have little interest in films.
  1. Discover the meaning of life.
You seem to assume that there is one and that it is discoverable by human reason. Also, if you were serious about this then you'd presumably devote your life to philosophical study instead of spending 20,000 hours watching films.
  1. Watch films I love more often with people I love.
This is enjoyable, but in general I would tend to see this as a "neither of us is busy, let's have a relaxing evening" kind of thing rather than a lifetime-highlight kind of thing.
  1. Lose the fear of death.
  2. Look forward to my own death.
  3. Risk my life (more often).
I've done the first. It's not difficult. On the other hand, I would rather put it off and achieve more on earth before I do actually die, and cultivating a habit of risking one's life is just stupid. Perhaps a better idea would be "be willing to risk or sacrifice my life for a good cause."
  1. Develop a greater awareness of my body.
  2. Train to get an athletic figure (with a six pack).
I'm quite happy with my body as it is, thank you very much. I could go to the gym, or I could improve my mind. Even better, I could go on a run while listening to an audiobook or podcast and so improve both my mind and body.
  1. Be more honest.
I would definitely be interested in trying out Radical Honesty. Whether or not it would be a good idea is another question entirely.
  1. Shave my head because of a spiritual need.
No. I like my hair, and shaving it will not make me the slightest bit more spiritual. Fool!
  1. Tell people I Love them, when I feel like it.
I wish I could do this. Unfortunately, telling people you love them isn't very British and this is the memeplex into which I happen to have been born.
  1. Attend a concert by Prince.
  2. Attend a concert by Aimee Mann.
  3. Attend a concert by Jude.
  4. Attend a concert by Julie Delpy.
Change the artists. Unfortunately Johnny Cash died more than a decade ago; I've already seen Half Man Half Biscuit; Muse are hideously expensive to see live...
  1. Go to a concert of an artist you love, with someone you love.
Entails finding a romantic partner. This is something of a failure mode for me with regard to this list.
  1. Work independently in something I love and be able to live from it.
Next best: become a professor of philosophy!
  1. Go hitch-hiking into the unknown with only a backpack, and little money (and maybe a friend).
I don't know about "the unknown". I'm not going hiking in the jungles of South America, and while I intend to go backpacking across Europe at some point I wouldn't really call that "the unknown".
  1. See my first big love again (and talk to her).
Entails finding and losing a romantic partner. Even more of a failure mode.
  1. Have my own laptop.
What do you think I'm typing this on?
  1. Make my own movie.
Haven't we already had this one?

To be continued... possibly.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

We need a new terminology for rape

A couple of weeks back in a politics tutorial, I was called upon to defend a Nozickian view of punishment as  being about restitution of the victim. In particular, I was to explain how it is even possible to compensate someone for being raped. (Rape was probably a bad crime to use as an example, being rather a hot-button issue, but it wasn't me who chose it). I didn't make a very good job of it, partly because of a lack of time and because the audience I was explaining to did not understand the axioms of microeconomics. I attempted to draw a standard graph of bundles of goods, with one axis representing monetary income (or rather, the optimal bundle of goods which could be acquired at a given level of income) and the other axis representing not-getting-raped. Due to the limited time available and because this is a rather tricky topic, I didn't get any further than this, but I did just about manage to mention something which had occurred to me: that rather than phrasing it as rape, we should phrase it as "sex one would rather not have."

This isolates the sex-crime, and removes the violence, betrayal of trust, and other wrongs that go along with it. The problem is that this isn't modelling rape - it's modelling prostitution. We can quite easily say "Person X would rather not sleep with person Y, but if Y were to pay X £x in exchange for the sex, then X would accept the exchange." But this wouldn't support a hypothetical-consent defence of rape if Y were to leave £x to X after the rape. Firstly, rape is almost inevitably going to involve some element of force, intimidation, deception, concealment or some other skulduggery. Each of these could be realised in a number of ways, and I really don't feel like describing them further unless necessary.

I would not go so far as to say that such skulduggery is necessarily a part of rape, however. Certainly it's present in the majority of cases, but we can conceive of cases where it was not. Indeed, there are some hideously complicated cases. Suppose a tall, muscular guy and a petite, naive girl meet in a nightclub, head back to the guy's room after several rounds of drinks. The guy then asks consent to have sex with the girl; she has sobered up a bit and doesn't really want to, but is afraid because she's in an unfamiliar place, he's much bigger and more powerful than her, it wasn't unreasonable for him to assume that he would be sleeping with her and he's lost the chance to spend the night with anyone else, and combined with the alcohol she's afraid that he'll get angry. So she says she consents.

This guy has specifically asked for, and apparently received, consent. That alone places him above the vast majority of males engaging in casual sex. And yet, the consent could reasonably be put down to duress and is therefore highly dubious. It's hard to see exactly what the guy has done wrong, and yet he is arguably guilty of rape.

What this tells us is that we need a more nuanced discussion of rape. Not all rapes are identical; not all rapists are necessarily blameworthy. We should distinguish undesirable sex (which someone might voluntarily take part in, in exchange for other services) from the means used to procure it, and we should distinguish between different means. I think we can agree that threatening suicide in order to get someone to sleep with you is worse than assuming consent from a one-night stand, so I think we should have different terms for these.

I am not optimistic for the chances of this actually happening, for reasons which I may go into at a later date.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

PhilChat on Realism, Possibility & Conceivability

We had the second UoM Philosophy Chat meeting today, so I'm just writing up a quick post to recount roughly what happened. There were two postgrads who each gave a talk on a philosophical subject which interested them. The first, Aaron, was talking on the subject of "Realism... whatever that is." The main thing I took away from his talk was that yes, the terminology of ontology is terminally screwy. A lot of debate over whether things exist seems to come from different notions of what we mean by existence. He is moving towards a meaning in which "real" is less a  defined label or property (e.g. real = not completely explicable in terms of lower-level phenomena) but more a statement that something represents a valuable way of looking at the world. This seemed very likely to be right, until he said that by by valuable he did not mean from a usefulness or epistemological standpoint, but instead he referred to some new kind of value which he was not yet willing to discuss.

The second talker, a PhD student named Nathan focused primarily on the philosophy of language, had first to explain why exactly he had changed his topic from the previously promised "philosophy of swearing". After this he went into the relation between Possibility and Conceivability, starting with a quote from Hume suggesting that the two were identical before going onto a more recent philosopher who had demonstrated that they are not. There was then a distinction drawn between two types of "conceivability" which, if I remember correctly, had something to do with the fact that I can conceive of the possibility that I went to Exeter University, but I cannot conceive of all the other necessary differences which would be made necessary by that single change. It was interesting, but very complicated with differences between "conceiving" and "believing" and a story from the Old Testament.

As at the last session, there was cake, hot drinks and mocking of continental philosophy.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Why not be immoral?

This semester I have been sitting in on a course on Ethics. Never having previously studied it on a formal basis, I thought it would be worth going along to the lectures in order to see if there are important issues that I am missing. From that perspective, the course has not been a disappointment: I had hitherto overlooked the thorny issue of why people should act morally.

From another perspective, the course has been a disappointment - the proposed answers to this, and the arguments for them, have been remarkably weak. There have been two answers proposed for this question:

  1. It is in one's interest to act morally
  2. A so-called "rationalist" argument, which I shall outline below
The argument from self-interest seems in on sense to be question begging. Why exactly would one act immorally if it were not in one's interest? That said, perhaps we could argue that there is more to it than this. Humans are not good at judging risk, so perhaps a case is to be made that we tend to err in our judgements of our self-interest, and that acting morally is a good corrective.

This clearly doesn't work as an argument in relation to utilitarianism, where one can frequently be required to sacrifice one's own wellbeing for the greater increase in wellbeing of others. It's hard to see how donating vast amounts of money to the third world is in one's own interest, and yet according to one of the most powerful essays on applied ethics of the last century it is pretty much obligatory. Similarly, any account of virtue ethics which includes a component of "civic virtue" - the propensity to sacrifice one's own interests for the good of one's community - will pretty much by definition fail to consistently serve one's own self-interest. Deontological systems don't necessarily fail to consistently advance one's own self-interest, but then again it would be extraordinarily rare to use a purely deontological system to establish one's view of the Good: usually, deontology acts as a side-constraint upon another system, whether that is virtue ethics, utilitarianism, enlightened egoism, or any other of the myriad moral systems we have developed.

Here is a rough reconstruction of the rationalist argument, taken directly from the lecture slides:
  1. What is Right is what is good.
  2. What is good is what we ought to do.
  3. What we ought to do is what we should do.
  4. What we should do is what we have reason to do.
Conclusion: We have reason to do what is right.

There are a couple of crucial problems with this argument. First, there is a problem which was discussed in the lecture: what does it mean to have reason to do something? It means that it is rational to do it. What does it mean for it to be rational to do something? Here lies a thorny debate between those who believe it means that one should want to do something regardless of one's interests, and those who believe it implies a path between doing the thing and achieving one's goals. Since I view the second view as obviously the correct one, the argument fails here. However, I would go further: I would charge that this argument is deliberately misleading and sophist.

One of the key tenets of Analytic Philosophy is being precise and clear in one's meaning. The above argument is not at all clear currently. There is a simple test to see whether an argument relies on the abuse of words: that is, to precisely define every word which is not absolutely obvious in meaning, and then to substitute in the definition for the word, wherever it appears in the argument. I propose the following definitions:
Ought: either that which someone has a duty to do, or that which is suberogatory.
Should: that which it would be advisable for a person to do, given their current set of desires and probable future desires.

I won't go over the whole argument like this; instead, I shall focus upon premise 3. Using the definitions I have provided, it becomes clear that this premise is flawed, and relies upon assuming a desire to act morally. We can try redefining the terms to get around this, but we are inevitably going to face this disconnect somewhere between premises 2 and 4. In ordinary language usage "ought" and "should" feel very much alike due to the ambiguity of the word "should"; however, when rendered in precise, logical language the difference in meaning becomes clear.

I'm not content to suggest that these arguments are not obviously true, though: I want to knock them down completely. For this reason I propose a simple test for the strength of any particular argument as to why a person should act morally:
Suppose a global dictator is to be appointed. This person is to be chosen completely at random out of the set of mentally competent adults of at least average intelligence, and is to have absolute power over the rest of humanity. There shall be no possible way of resisting the dictator's will or of deposing them. Would you rely on this argument in order to keep that person behaving benevolently?
I doubt anyone would be comfortable assuming that it was in a dictator's own self-interest to act entirely morally and honourably (unless they believe in an afterlife, and we prefer to avoid making that kind of assumption). And you can go on all you like about it being "rational" to not maintain a harem of supermodels and to avoid nepotism, but I doubt the average dictator gives more thought to maintaining a veneer of philosophical "rationality" than he does to propagating his genes. Indeed, I doubt that there is any real reason for this absolute dictator to hold back once he is in this position; instead, one would have to act beforehand so as to restrict his power and free will.

There is an objection to this line of argument I can imagine being raised, but which misses the point. This objection is that there is a massive difference between acting morally when one is a near-omnipotent dictator, and when one is an ordinary member of a human society. If a normal person takes up stealing, then they will be arrested and fined or imprisoned. If they start insulting the people around them, then they will face social rejection.

The problem with this objection is that in these cases, it's not morality that we are responding to: it is social incentives. The dictator example deliberately removes all of these other restraints; relying on social incentives is at best a flawed method of achieving good behaviour, for it does not punish many kinds of bad behaviour (e.g. persistence of various hazing rituals, state brutality, and if you believe in it then rape culture) while punishing all kinds of things which are morally neutral or even virtuous (e.g. public cross-dressing, professing and acting based on scepticism of ostensibly well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective or worse). However, this does point in one useful direction, because we have the power to change social incentives.

I suspect that it is not in the interests of the individual to act morally. However, it is in the interests of the individual that other individuals act morally. Therefore, ceteris paribus it is in the interests of the individual to promote social incentives which align with promoting moral behaviour.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Review of Frozen

When it first came out, I had no particular interest in seeing Frozen, but after loving Tangled, hearing a couple of the songs and having it recommended by a friend I thought that I would go to see it. I certianly enjoyed the film, but I have the feeling that there was something off about it.

That thing, I believe, is that the film is undecided about what it wants to be. The first half of the story goes on in the form of musical theatre, which just happens to be animated - a sung opening number with essentially no plot relevance except to introduce the characters of Kristoff and Sven (Frozen Heart), a montage number explaining the rift between Princesses Elsa and Anna (Do You Want to Build a Snowman?), a song explaining the motivation of the protagonists (For the First Time in Forever); Anna and Hans get a jazzy falling-in-love number (Love is an Open Door), a bit of drama leading to Elsa fleeing and singing the musical's most memorable song (Let It Go). So far, so fabulous. This is where the first act ends, and it starts to turn into a drama film. Anna chases after her sister, and via songs meets Kristoff, Sven (Reindeer are Better than People) and Olaf (In Summer).

Got that? We have a first half of the film in which at least half of the time is taken up by songs, and no less than seven songs are used to explain the characters' feelings. Fairly standard for musical theatre. But in the entire rest of the story, there are only two songs, one of which is simply a refrain of For the First Time in Forever and the other of which (Fixer Upper) is, I think it is fair to say, the weakest song in the film. What I would term the third act of the story - from Elsa being captured and Anna being informed that her frozen heart can only be healed by an act of true love - does not include a single song. Every part of the film is good on its own merits, but the inconsistency means that song-lovers will be disappointed by the second half of the movie, while people who'd rather the story moved along will find the first half rather too slow.

That said, what tangential thoughts do I have on the minutae of the film?

First: It's not entirely clear what the Duke of Weselton did wrong. Sure, he's not a nice person. Lots of people aren't. Yes, he only wanted to trade with Arandelle for his own benefit, but so what? It's like the film-makers have never heard of the gains from trade. Yes, he ordered his henchmen to kill Queen Elsa, but to be fair she was a witch and this was back in a time when witches could be assumed to be evil. Besides which, in his eyes she had cursed the whole kingdom of Arandelle and if killing her was the only way to undo the curse, then is her life really to be placed over the thousands of lives her winter is threatening. (Come to think of it, presumably quite a few people died of cold during that winter, even if they did so off-screen). He happened to help Hans in his evil plan, but it wasn't out of malice - he simply wanted someone on the throne who would allow trade between Weselton and Arandelle. You could perhaps justify his maltreatment at the end based on his behaviour at the ball and such things, but cutting off trade is not just unreasonable but plain stupid.

In my review of Tangled I suggested that Disney were promoting a rose-tinted, overly optimistic, and perhaps even dangerous view of love in relation to young women. This film swings so far the other way that I almost think Tangled gives the less dangerous message. Sure, the young man who promises to spend his whole life with you may well not really mean it, but it doesn't generally mean he's intending to kill your sister and probably you too. What I find interesting from a characterisation standpoint is that the reasons for Anna and Rapunzel's naivety is the same in both cases - being kept isolated from the outer world - but they approach the outside world in very different ways. Rapunzel was terrified of the outer world until she encountered it, and prior to leaving the tower was only really interested in seeing the lanterns up close; Anna, on the other hand, was eagerly excited to encounter everything there was to see and meet.

At what point was Marshmallow (the giant snowman monster) actually named as such before Olaf called him that?

The music: if I hadn't already known that the songs were co-written by Robert Lopez (in collaboration with his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez) then there's a fair chance I'd have guessed. There's a range of styles used, but most if not all of the songs have little touches which sound very reminiscent of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. The link between the chorus and the second verse of Let It Go is one such snippet; the tune of Do You Want to Build a Snowman? is another familiar kind of musical idea, or alternatively the "With you!" "With you!" sections of Love is an Open Door. The instrumental music was fine - generally unobtrusive, and the climax of the music at the end of the film perfectly matched the mood.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

In Defence of Ron

By now you can hardly have avoided the announcement. J.K. Rowling thinks, in hindsight, that Ron and Hermione were wrong for each other and that perhaps Harry and Hermione would have been a better match.

I was even more disappointed by Eric Crampton's take, a polemic replete with HPMOR quotes and a determination to ignore the fact that we're talking about an 11-year-old. Yes, Ron inherited some silly ideas from his parents (and from the Wizarding World as a whole) but he also had a cool head under fire and an admirable willingness to put his interests aside to serve others. In the first book alone note that, apart from his heroic sacrifice in the chess game, it was he who had the sense to think of lighting a fire when confronted with Devil's Snare.

I'm not going to attempt to defend the Ron/Hermione relationship - if they managed to be friends for six years and Ron only developed an interest in Hermione when she suddenly morphed into the actress playing her then I'm happy to lump it in with most late-teenage you're-fit-let's-date relationships, albeit with considerably more intense shared experiences than most. Harry and Ginny at least had complementary personalities - Ron and Hermione would never have become friends without Harry's influence. (If we're brutally honest, it's doubtful that Hermione would have had friends at all for at least her first four years at Hogwarts were it not for the troll incident - at least, not among the Gryffindors. Maybe she'd have bonded with Neville over neither of them having anyone else to hang out with?).

I remember one fanfic I read suggested that, in an alternate universe with no Ginny  Harry would (being rich, famous, presumably good-looking) have had his choice of girls, and gone for the one who he found most interesting - Luna. I like this theory, and Luna would certainly be my favourite alternative to Ginny. I don't know that I'd say that Luna was the best girl for Harry, but I would definitely say that (of the characters appearing in the books) Harry would have been the best guy for Luna. He never mocks her, which puts him ahead of just about everyone else to begin with. Let's hope that Rolf Scamander was suitably eccentric.

Drowning less often than previously

One of the key tricks to learn as a kayaker is Rolling - that is, self-righting after you capsize. It generally relies on two things: first, something of a base against which to push, and second, a strong hip-flick. The hip-flick is not too difficult to get the hang of, and will allow you to self-right using a nearby rock/side-of-the-pool/someone else's kayak. However, the base component relies upon one of these being available - which generally isn't the case - or on the ability to create base of your own with the paddle. This is not an easy thing to get the knack of: in order to pull it off while upside down you have to (after not panicking, which is of course the first danger) bring your paddle to your side, lean forward, sweep it outwards, and using your whole torso pull it against the water - all while performing a slow yet powerful hip-flick. I'm probably making it sound harder than it actually is; the point is that it takes a lot of practice to get the hang of. By "practice" I mean repeatedly and deliberately capsizing yourself, while going through the motions, with someone else on hand to dead-man-save you once you need to come up for air.

I've been practising in this way each Tuesday evening for the last few months, and eventually, last night, I performed my first unassisted roll. It was amazing how clean the whole thing felt - just one motion through the water, and before I knew it I was upright. I only managed it twice, in about thirty attempts over the course of the evening; that said, there were a couple of times where I was very close to getting up and only tipped again at the last second.

Hopefully over the next few weeks I'll turn it into a knack and be able to self-right automatically and reliably. After I finished practising for the evening, I spent a while watching over another guy who was better at it than I but still not 100% reliable with his rolls. "Dead-man-saving" someone - that is, righting someone in a kayak when you're not - is actually pretty easy, you just have to get your centre of mass on top of their kayak in order to provide downward force for the roll.

Monday, 10 February 2014

An apologetic disappointment

This week is the university Christian Union's Mission Week, in which various evangelistic events are held and we are all to invite friends to come to the events. Tonight there was an event focused around a talk on the compatibility or otherwise of science and Christianity. As a Christian whose faith has been on the rocks for several months (I don't tend to talk or write about it, for a variety of reasons) I went along to see what evidence was to be presented. Most of the problems of I have with Christianity are philosophical, to do with ethics and meta-ethics; however, I'm interested in the scientific evidence also and the talk was to be given by a scientist from Oxford, so I was hoping that there would some serious evidence presented. I was to be bitterly disappointed.

The talk was in fact remarkably devoid of evidence - indeed, none of it could really be described as science, per se, it fell very much under the umbrella of philosophy - which left me wondering why the talk was given by a scientist. (A cynical view would be that an actual philosopher talking about science and its general irrelevance to questions of theology could be easily dismissed as "She doesn't know what she's talking about," whereas a scientist is much harder to dismiss in that fashion).

The first part of the talk was part of her testimony, of how she had grown up nominally an atheist, loved science, gone to university to study Biochemistry and encountered some incredibly persuasive Christian ideas, done a PhD and spent seven years in scientific research before changing to work in apologetics.

Next came a collection of quotes from various atheist scientists affirming that religion was a reasonable viewpoint. (I somewhat doubt the veracity of one quote from Stephen Jay Gould, but then again I wouldn't be too concerned with what he said anyway. {And while this statement is arguably an ad hominem against Gould, I think that ad hominem is perfectly valid when the original claim was based entirely upon an appeal to authority.}) Note that it was all individual quotes with an absence of context. There were no statistics as to how representative these statements were of science as a whole.

Following on from this, the speaker argued that religion has often inspired science. She presented a list of notable scientists, present and historical, who where Christians. Again, there was a lack of statistics; there was also a failure to account for the fact that until relatively recently, atheism was unthinkable or was cause for severe discrimination. David Hume, who in my opinion was quite possibly the greatest philosopher ever to have lived, is generally thought to have been an atheist; however, he was rather coy about this in his lifetime for fear of persecution. (The same could be said for Hegel, who is quite possibly the most overrated philosopher ever). I also had to admire her gall in claiming Galileo as being inspired by faith, given how the Church treated him in his time.

After this came an argument that the very fact of human rationality, that we are able to use science and reason, is evidence for God's existence. If we have come about by random processes, the argument runs, it is ridiculously unlikely that our cognitive processes will come to resemble a reliable truth-finding process. An interesting argument, with two key problems. Firstly that it erroneously assumes that our cognitive processes are a reliable truth-finding process (which is understandable, cognitive bias is not all that well-known-about) and secondly that it ignores the whole point of natural selection. If greater epistemic rationality is useful for passing on one's genes - for example, because it allows better assessment of threats and opportunities - then ceteris paribus evolution will tend to promote greater epistemic rationality.

The rest of the talk was a discussion of "the limits of science" and of the dangers of scientism. Scientism in this case was logical positivism by another name, and so the attack on scientism was nothing more than an attack on an important but crucially flawed project which was discarded more than half a century ago. There was no attempt to engage with more recent and advanced versions of the idea that, wherever possible, we should look towards empirical evidence.

The speaker discussed the fact that science cannot tell us about morality, referencing David Hume's famous observation that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is". Thus, of course, we need something beyond science to tell us what morality is and where it comes from. This is of course true, but a) it's not clear that morality really exists, and b) there are numerous non-religious explanations as to the nature of morality. (As it happens I don't find them very plausible, but at least one-third of philosophers do - in the PhilPapers survey of philosophers' views, 56.4% endorsed moral realism while only 14.6% endorsed theism).

Saturday, 8 February 2014

How Teenage Boys Respond to Incentives

Back when I went to school, I used to take in a packed lunch each day. The previous evening my dad would make lunches for himself, me, my brother, and sometimes my mother (she worked part-time, and would typically work from home one or two days each week). I would take the lunch in, consume it, and take my lunchbox home. My dad would wash it that evening, along with all the plates, pans and cutlery that needed washing.

I wasn't always very good at putting my lunchbox for washing - often I would take it out of my rucksack, put it on my bedroom floor, and take it down a day or three later. This annoyed my mum, because we didn't have an infinite supply of lunchboxes and if there were two or three in my room at any one time, this reduced the number available to be used for holding people's lunches. Hence, if I brought a lunchbox down late, I would get in trouble.

I didn't like getting in trouble, and so like any sensible homo economicus I acted so as to avoid getting into trouble. That is to say, if a lunchbox had been in my room for a couple of days, it was there to stay. Gradually a pile of perhaps a dozen lunchboxes built up underneath my desk, gathering mould. I don't know how long that pile was there, but I'm fairly confident the answer is in years.

Eventually, my dad started asking me for my lunchbox when he started washing up if he didn't have it. Plus, I started juggling slightly - I would return a two-day-old box in preference to the box from that day, an return an extra box at the weekend. The pile stopped growing, it just got mouldier.

One night before the bin collection, I got up in the middle of the night, filled a black bin-bag with some of the lunchboxes and put it to be taken away. For some reason I didn't do this a second time; instead, I kept a bin-bag of six mouldy lunchboxes in the shelf portion of my loft-bed.

It came to be that some work needed to be done in the attic, and the easiest way into the attic was through a trapdoor which was about three feet above my bed. At this point I somehow managed to mention the lunchboxes, and put the bag for the dustbin-men to collect, thus putting a lid on the whole affair.

There are two lessons to be learned from this. Firstly, that there really isn't much that teenage boys will dismiss as too disgusting. Secondly, be careful when you set incentives for other people: they are liable to react in unpredictable ways which may be far worse than the problem the incentives are supposed to fix.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Pointless Dispute

Chris House, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and a blogger, writes a piece responding to Paul Krugman's occasional claims that "the facts have a well-known liberal bias", suggesting that it is more nuanced and that, in general within the sphere of economics, they have if anything a conservative bias.

Noah Smith, a colleague of House's and quite a famous blogger (as economics bloggers go), responds to this. He argues that the positions supported by the facts - which he agrees are broadly the same set of facts that House suggested they were - are in fact more centre-left positions.

Note that they have little to no disagreement over the economic facts or the policies implied by the facts - it's simply a he-said, she-said debate over which ideology actually advocates those positions. Frankly, this kind of argument is a waste of the time of intelligent people who could be doing far better things.

See also this.

A Tithe of Time

It seems to be pretty much universally agreed among Christians that we ought to tithe 10% of our income. (I was attempting to find a biblical reference for why this is, and it turns out to be complicated). But our income represents the fruits of only a small portion of our lives - in developed countries, most people work between 1500 and 2000 hours per annum, or an average of about 3-4.5 hours each day. If we allow for eight hours being spent sleeping, and working for two-thirds of one's life (which is a pretty large overestimate - many people spend barely half their lives in paid employment) then this represents a tithe on about one-sixth of our waking lives.

I propose that we ought to be tithing from the rest of our time too. If we have twelve hours a day (on average) when we are not in work or sleeping, then this suggests a tithe of eight or nine hours per week. Allow three-and-a-half hours for church and a midweek bible study/fellowship group, and we ought to to be spending roughly forty-five minutes to an hour each day praying, reading the bible, and directly worshipping God in other ways.

Of course this shouldn't be taken as "45 minutes, that's my duty done!" - God loves a cheerful giver - and it doesn't mean that we can't do all things in our lives to the glory of God. But it doesn't seem like a difficult target - 20 minutes of praying, which can be spread throughout the day into two or more sessions; 10-15 minutes each of reading the bible and reflecting upon it.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Libertarian Fiction

Students for Liberty are running a fiction contest for a story, 1000-10,000 words long, "illustrating the positive role of freedom in human life".

I recently read a suggestion somewhere - I forget where it was - that it is impossible to write a great story advocating something, and that all the great political novels - Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Grapes of Wrath, perhaps Atlas Shrugged if you're into that kind of thing - were railing against a system. I'm thinking that I might attempt to write an entry for this competition, and I'm thinking that I might set it in an anarcho-capitalist society. This, of course, incurs great danger in terms of literary quality.

I must avoid presenting it as utopian - partly because I don't see this as entirely realistic and partly because it's a story, and every story aimed at people above the age of six needs a problem. I could make the problem an evil, aggressive state which neighbours the anarchist society, but this seems rather close to the Ayn Rand-type "Freedom Good, State Bad" assertion that most libertarians secretly believe but tends to turn off the uninitiated. So, what I want to do is to, in a sense, normalise anarchy: to present it as a valid, workable alternative to our current socialist/corporatist hybrid with its own unique benefits and its own unique problems.

How can I best emphasise the difference between my fictional society and those which currently exist? My protagonist should fill a role which would change significantly in an anarchist society. The industry I would expect to change most is that of law creation and enforcement. And it just so happens that one of the great genres - the whodunnit - is entirely about people in this line of work.

So my main character should be a detective. I don't want him to be a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes, because this is supposed to be realistic and believable. Deducing from a left-behind banana skin that the murderer was a left-handed homosexual with an interest in stamp collecting is beyond the ability of the average genius, let alone the average person who might possibly read my story.

I also need problems for them to overcome. I'm thinking that Creative Destruction could play a role - perhaps a company gone down the toilet, taking a load of data with it. I like the idea of the crime being investigated being the murder of a man with no friends or family - presumably he paid a company to commit to catching his killer, as an (unfortunately insufficient) form of self-defence.

That's about as far as I've got with thinking through it, so far. I'm also re-listening to David Friedman's talk "Vinge, Heinlein, the Sagas and Me", which looks at a variety of anarchist structures, both historical and fictional.

PhilChat, Women in Philosophy

Today marked the first meeting of a 'PhilChat' group at the university. About fifteen people went - a mixture of postgraduates, especially dedicated undergraduates, a trio of rather less dedicated undergraduates who had apparently been press-ganged into coming by the postgrad who ran one of their tutorials, and of course our speaker - the esteemed Professor Helen Beebee, who gave a talk on women in philosophy. She had just been taking a two hour lecture so we had a short wait for her to arrive, during which time the postgraduates (most of whom were down to give talks in future weeks) introduced their own specialisms, which were mainly metaphysical but included one guy who had spent a long time considering the precise meaning of the word "allegedly" and was down to do a talk on the philosophy of swearing. Oh, and it took precisely three-and-a-half minutes before the discussion turned to laughing at MMU and their study of Continental Philosophy (as UoM students of Analytic Philosophy, we of course look down on both of these).

The talk itself was interesting. If I were a person with the slightest bit of power, then I would have demanded more statistics, but there were enough statistics present to demonstrate that women are a minority and the argument as to why this was certainly seemed plausible. (Essentially, it was the classic "Philosophy, as practised by most departments, is a rather intellectually violent discipline. This has a greater propensity to turn off woman than men." Professor Beebee cited the example of another professor at one of her previous employers who had kept a score of "Home Wins" and "Away Wins": whenever they had a visiting scholar, the home scholars would attempt to tear the scholar's article to pieces and if, as usually happened, they succeeded, the professor would chalk it up as a Home Win.)

After a short break, during which the less interested undergrads sloped off, there followed a Q&A session. Both of the questions I had in mind were asked in slightly different form before I was called upon to ask a question, but I learned some of the way in which philosophy seminars work. In the process I was introduced to the hand question/thumb question distinction, a distinction on a par with the analytic/synthetic distinction in terms of its importance to a young philosopher. Having arrived slightly late, I was near the front and did not see the raising of hands/fingers and so remain ignorant of the workings of this phenomenon; however, to use Donald Rumsfeld's terminology it has moved from an unknown unknown to a known unknown, which in my book is a significant improvement.

Eventually we ran out of time - in fact, I think we overran significantly - and the postgrads headed off to the pub. I went to the aquatics centre for kayaking, spent an hour capsizing in a controlled fashion, another hour varying between sitting on the edge and screeching around the pool at top speed, and eventually headed back to the house.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Thoughts on disabilities

I had never heard of Walter Oi before he died, but there were some interesting blog posts remembering him that I read. One of them linked to a paper he had written regarding profit maximisation when a company was in the business of selling two different products that were desired in conjunction. Looking at the paper, I noticed the references, the formatting, and I considered that, being blind, he was almost certainly reliant upon someone to type a fair bit of it up for him while he dictated it. There are, I think, three things which we can learn from the existence of this paper.

First, that some people are amazingly clever and productive. His mind was sufficiently keen that someone else could be more productive typing his work than doing work of their own. It's always fascinated me that there are some people whose time is literally worth thousands of pounds an hour; I doubt we're talking that scale here, but it's still incredible to think that while I'd struggle to produce £10 worth of value in an hour, there are people producing hundreds of times that.

Secondly, how much many of us would hate being blind. There are so many things you'd lose the ability to do - reading, driving, exercising unassisted... People are often willing to be accommodating - in Ceilidhs I've danced with a blind girl and with several people who were in wheelchairs - but at the very least it entails a severe loss of independence. Sight is one of the greatest gifts we have.

Finally, the extent to which the lives of disabled people are being improved by technology. A couple of centuries ago it would have been nigh impossible for a blind person to make themself understood except through speech - without the ability to see where on the paper one was writing, you'd presumably end up writing your lines on top of each other. Sixty years ago, one could have used a typewriter: this would take a fair bit of getting used to, and would require someone to read it back to you for editing and to help with the formatting, but would at least give you a clearly written message. Nowadays, you'd just use a voice recognition program on your computer (which would also use voice commands to switch on/off and to navigate between programs) and achieve efficiency close to that of an otherwise equally capable sighted person. Perhaps (stepping into the realms of sci-fi) the future will bring machines which read your brain and translate your thoughts straight to the page and it will make no difference whether or not you can see the external world. One can only dream.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

What does it mean to believe?

Take a proposition P and a person A. What conditions are necessary and/or sufficient for us to be able to say that A believes P?

The most obvious definition to try would be that A attributes a probability of over 50% to P being true. However, this seems potentially both over-extensive and under-extensive in the range of situations it classes as 'belief'. First, suppose A buys a lottery ticket and flips a coin. Without looking at the outcome of either, A can say that the probability of the proposition "the coin has landed on heads, or the lottery ticket has won the jackpot" is ever-so-slightly above 50%, yet it seems strange to call this a belief when it is at best a guess based upon probabilities. Furthermore, suppose there is a set of propositions P1, P2, ... all of which are mutually exclusive, whose subjective probabilities (according to A) of being true sum to 1, and P(P1)<0.5, but P1 is by a substantial margin the most probable of these. Would it then be reasonable to say that A believes P? I'm uncertain, which seems to suggest that it is likely to depend upon the vagaries of the case.

With regard to the first issue, perhaps we can tweak our definition to state that P(P) must be a posterior probability, based upon actual evidence, as opposed to a prior probability based on... something. (I'm assuming for the moment that A follows a Bayesian Epistemology; of course most people, including most philosophers, do not fit this description, but I personally at least try to and this whole post is a somewhat roundabout way of tackling an issue regarding my own beliefs).

This doesn't really seem to make any sense, however, as a normative prescription for how we ought to choose our beliefs. If we have a sensibly chosen prior then it's hard to see why having evidence should affect the epistemic nature of our view of a proposition. (By nature, I refer to belief vs. justified belief vs. knowledge vs. whatever else there is, as opposed to status, i.e. strongly believe vs. weakly belief vs. weakly disbelieve and a thousand-one-variants thereof).

What I suppose I'm getting at is that the notion of belief as a binary concept is very unclear, and perhaps incoherent. What would this mean? It shouldn't affect our actions: we are perfectly capable of acting on things we 'disbelieve' or believe to have negligible probability - this is one of the key ideas in some areas of global catastrophic risk. It ought, however, to affect the way we think about epistemology - if it is impossible to come up with a sensible definition for belief, then this will throw all attempts to define knowledge out of the window. For people with sensible (i.e. Bayesian) epistemologies this is no problem, but it might form the basis of an attack upon non-Bayesian epistemology.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A few notes on Freedom, as a concept and in practice

Two notes. The first comes from The Great Escape but has nothing to do with religion, the second is entirely about religion but is from the most recent Student Bible Study I went to, on Thursday.


There are many senses in which political philosophers down the years have used the words 'freedom' and 'liberty'. Some of these can be ignored - for example, Hegel's use of the word (roughly, "acting in accordance with reason,") seems rather abusive of the intuitive meaning we attach to it - but there are at least three meanings worth considering.

First, Negative Liberty, or the absence of oppression. If someone threatens to hurt you if you carry out an action of which they disapprove, they are violating your negative liberty.

Second, Positive Liberty, which is somewhat vague but refers to a general idea of autonomy and self-mastery. The key difference with Negative Liberty is that anything can count as a restraint on your liberty - while Negative Liberty focuses upon limitations emanating from other agents, Positive Liberty considers physical impossibility, absence of necessary materials, even lack of self-control.

As a side note, I do not personally think about either of these (at least directly) in terms of my value judgements, I tend to think more in terms of the inherent wrongness of imposing your will upon another person. Of course, then I have to explain precisely why I think that this is wrong, so I probably do attach some value to freedom.

These are the two main ones. The distinction was introduced by Isaiah Berlin in his speech "Two Concepts of Liberty" and there is a notable debate over which of the two better reflects the meaning we attach to the words 'freedom' and 'liberty'. However, there is also a third way in which the words may be used - that is, "Freedom as Non-domination" or "Republican Freedom", roughly defined as the absence of being subject to arbitrary power - the emphasis of that being on the word 'arbitrary'.

On the way back from The Great Escape, I listened to a podcast in which Philip Pettit was interviewed about a book he had written defending this interpretation of liberty. He made reference to a play by Henrik Ibsen - I can't remember which, but it was most likely A Doll's House - in which there is a woman, subject to a man (her husband?) who dotes upon her and will give her whatever she wants, but also holds complete power over her. He argued that she was not truly "free" because of the fact that her apparent freedom was entirely reliant upon the will of the man.

I personally find this unconvincing. I would say that she is free, and that perhaps there is an X such that we value X, X corresponds to non-domination, and we don't actually value freedom. This seems rather closer to the actual political and philosophical issue than merely arguing over precisely what we intuitively mean by "Freedom". As a somewhat rough analogy, we have distinct concepts of 'total utility', 'average utility', 'eudaemonia', and 'preference satisfaction'. When arguing about what is valuable, we do not argue about which of these is somehow a more authentic representation of what our intuitions conjure up when presented with phrases like 'utopia' and 'the good life' but instead argue about which is actually more valuable.


A second distinction in types of freedom: I shall refer to "metaphysical" freedom and "political freedom". By political freedom I mean the stuff I have just been talking about - a general notion of "not being enslaved". By metaphysical freedom I mean freedom of the will. I believe there to be a tendency for people to confuse the two - I don't blame them, most people are not trained to be absolutely clear in their language, there are several other words which can mean more than one thing (e.g. Libertarian and Libertarian).

In particular, there is one confusion which I have only just understood. The Bible often promises that we may have freedom through Christ. It is easy to see how this may be understood as political slavery - we were slaves to sin and death, but now are no longer subject to judgement.

Except that we don't become fully autonomous agents: we become servants of God. I'm not denying that this is an improvement in our condition (see, again with the "it's not precisely freedom which is valuable"!) but it doesn't really seem like an increase in our freedom. We go from one master to another master - a better master, to be sure, but at no point do we cease to be owned in some sense.

But take this passage, Romans 7:15-25 (taken from the NIV):
15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[b] a slave to the law of sin.
Now it becomes clear that the freedom we achieve through Christ is metaphysical: we are unable to control ourselves and to avoid sin due to our sinful natures, but due to his intervention we are not controlled by sin and can do what we desire - that is, to love and worship our Lord God.


I am attempting to plan, experiment with and just generally optimise a lot of things in my life. This is largely due to the influence of Less Wrong. One particular piece I was reading earlier:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
 Accordingly, I intend to attempt to post here more often but to do less editing - just straight up aim to get the words out and to get the writing practice. My guess is that this will result in a short and medium term decline in quality and a long-term improvement. We'll see (at least in so far as quality is empirically measurable).

Links, February 2014

It's amazing how many links accumulate once you start keeping a record of them. Rather than highlighting the more interesting links like last time, I'm going to sort them by category.

Pretties / Culture
If I remember correctly, this was from somewhere in North America.

Music straight from the streets of Adelaide. I don't think that's how you're supposed to play the guitar.

God: If you didn't want me to have sex with other men, why did you make them so attractive?

Unfortunately not yet available to order.

This is how all political philosophy ought to be taught.

Some interesting pieces on the surveillance state: first, what if we had had the NSA in 1776? Second, memoirs of a TSA agent. Third, probably the worst police brutality I've come across which hasn't resulted in death.

I'm generally sceptical of the feminist movement, but I agree that it is responding to genuine problems - many of which are disturbingly subtle. Also, see this type of sexism in action.


The latest celebrity chef. (Just to be clear, linking does not imply endorsement).

If you're impressed by Sherlock, then remember that Walter Oi could do the same thing despite being blind.

The human capacity for delusion knows no bounds.

The case for charity. If you read nothing else here, read this.

I believe that this is where I'm supposed to say: "Still a better love story than Twilight."

France sounds nice. If only it was less left-wing and I wasn't vegetarian.

The Mafioso, the deaf bookkeeper, and the lawyer.

Somehow an ethicist has got this far in philosophy without hearing of Utilitarianism.

Sterling negotiation technique on display here.

This is supposed to be about currency, but I think it's more interesting as a discussion of the never-ending variety and complexity of local institutions.

If you see me wearing some bags of ice-cubes in lectures, this is why. (It's worth a try, surely?)