Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rights Talk Gone Too Far?

We're already familiar with some dubious seeming human rights, such as that to paid holiday. Now it seems that not being invited to a classmate's birthday may be a violation of human rights! (Via BBC news)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How is this a Lottery?

Lexus SUV crushes Porsche in car park. BBC headline 'Lexus rollover in parking lottery'. Is anything bad now called a lottery, or were they just desperate to use a rollover pun?

What Happened to Jones?

Those familiar with Scanlon will know that one of his famous examples, used against utilitarianism, is of Jones who falls into a TV transmitter during the world cup final. He's in fairly severe pain although not at risk of long-term damage or death. The only way to rescue him involves interrupting transmission. Scanlon says we should save him, regardless of how many are watching the match.

I mention this because although tonight's match was only a European championship semi-final, there were two disruptions to the BBC coverage, one of which included Klose's goal. (Since there was a replay later, presumably it was only the transmission rather than recording of pictures affected). They claim it was a world-wide picture loss caused by storms disrupting power in Vienna. Well, that's what they say - who knows whether they were really rescuing some unfortunate individual from the transmitter room...

Contrary to all expectations, it was a very entertaining match, which the Turks thoroughly deserved to win. The loss of pictures did make me wonder whether Scanlon's obviously right. It's not really clear how much pain Jones is in, and some of the many millions of viewers probably do care an awful lot about the result. Indeed, at the extreme, it's not unusual for people to suffer heart attacks during football matches - what if the break in transmission actually imposed a greater risk of death on at least some spectators (more nervous because not being able to see what's happening ruins the illusion of control)?

Anyway, the BBC's online commentary suggests a more practical solution:
2106: Don't worry people of the UK, we are not alone. The TV pictures have gone all around the world. They are still playing though - which is a bit selfish. Jens Lehmann collects Sabri's shot comfortably.
Why don't they just pause the game?

I Had A Dream

We're all familiar with what to do when 'raptors attack (if not, see here). This morning I woke up from a pretty weird dream in which a rhino somehow entered the house. Having had more time to think about potential escape routes, I now reckon the best responses would be either:
1) run into my brother's bedroom, from where I can attempt to climb out the window onto the conservatory roof - a potentially risky escape that would get me outside
2) if given time at the top of the stairs, climb into the loft, where I'm presumably out of reach but have nothing to do but sit and wait (either for help or the rhino to leave).
I'm not sure which strategy would be best, and I don't really want to waste time thinking about it - I just hope this doesn't come back to haunt me...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

University Degrees in the News

Each summer we're used to another set of record A level (and GCSE) grades and the consequent media furore about whether or not the exams are getting easier. Just lately, however, the spotlight seems to have been on university degrees.

First, one 'whistle-blowing' academic admits that foreign students are awarded degrees - often at Masters level - without even a decent command of English. I'm guessing that may be easier in the natural sciences than for arts and social sciences, but in fact the allegation is that a blind eye is turned to plagiarism or even supervisor writing essays for their students!

I have to say I can think of one or two students I've known who seem to have struggled with the course - perhaps due only to their English being not up to scratch. My experience suggests the problem isn't as prevalent as made out, but then it's reasonable I suppose to assume that the students you see in seminars or down the pub are the ones with a reasonable grasp of English, and it's the people you never see that we should be worried about...

Now the QAA watchdog has apparently issued a warning that degree classifications are arbitrary. (Perhaps they should be assigned by lottery?). To a certain extent, this is an obvious and unavoidable problem. Not only does marking essays involve an amount of inherent subjectivity, calling for difficult adjudication as to whether students are wrong or merely arguing for something you personally disagree with, but the banding of all students into 1st, 2:i, 2:ii, 3rd, pass and fail is an attempt to divide a continuous spectrum into very few distinct groups. Of course the top 2:i will almost certainly be considerably closer to the bottom 1st than to the bottom 2:i.

Then, of course, there's variation between institutions, hinted at in the article. I'm sure that if any Oxbridge student went elsewhere and did a similar amount of work they could get a first, but can we give all students - or even the majority of them - firsts? The fact is a 2:i from Oxbridge isn't perceived to be equal to a 2:i from an ex-Poly red brick, and that's probably the reality in most cases too.

All this is complicated by rising fees that raise the question whether students are merely learners or customers. Faced with increased costs, they're increasingly required to see their degrees as investments and want to be sure of a return for their money - which means at least a decent degree and chance of profitable employability.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Croatia v Turkey

Last night was my last in Oxford before going home for the summer, so I went out for a drink with an old friend - someone who did a masters in my first year, but who I hadn't seen since - and missed the football. When I got home, I saw that it was half-way through extra time, so I decided to head into college to watch the likely penalty shoot-out. I turned the TV on just in time to see replays of the Croatia goal - which left me somewhat disappointed. Needless to say, I was pretty happy when the Turks - for the third time in four games - scored an injury time goal to send the game to penalties, which they won. I thought the outcome was pretty obvious, given the Croats thought they'd won and were clearly dealt a huge psychological blow. Bilic, however, claims penalties are a lottery. In some sense, I guess they are, but it's not like the match was decided by the toss of a coin.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Who Should Tell the President?

Over on his Dilbert blog, Scott Adams suggests that in the future bacteria may be able to convert rubbish into oil. This in itself would be great, but what caught my eye was his proposal for who should tell the President of Venezuala: "I fantasize that someday the United States will hold a national lottery to see who gets to tell the president of Venezuela that we no longer need his oil."

Abortions and Ageing

Rob briefly touches on abortion here. This comes at the same time as shocking figures about how many under 14s are having abortions. There's also a very interesting piece about ageing on Colin Farrelly's blog. If I understand him rightly, all those under 14s reproducing early are diminishing the effects of natural selection and thereby preventing humans living longer...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Eating More or Better?

I recently used my piece on J. S. Mill and higher/lower pleasures, currently under review, as a writing sample for a job. That's only of passing relevance to this interesting discussion of food portions on CT. Someone, way down at comment 82, however, makes the following point: American restaurants are just another example of Americans concern with quantity rather than quality. Quality requires taste and is considered elitist, but anyone can judge quantity. No wonder Mill is often considered elitist!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Oxford Grad Conference in Philosophy

Details of the 12th Annual Oxford Philosophy Graduate Conference are now online here. Selections are pretty tough, but they're usually rather light on political philosophy, so I'd encourage readers to apply if that's what they're interested in.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More on Job Applications

I recently posted the BBC's discussion of interviews. More helpful, particularly for academics, are the following two threads on Crooked Timber:

1) The importance of a web presence. I hope that's fulfilled, between this blog and my academic page, which people occasionally find via searches.

2) Laying out a CV. There doesn't actually appear to be much consensus, merely personal preferences (e.g. whether to list papers under review and whether working papers should be separate from publications).

I wish this advice had come before, rather than after, most of this year's round of applications. Nonetheless, I now have three interviews lined up over the next two weeks - so maybe it's the interview advice I need...

Of course, there's always general job-related discussion here.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Since I'm still currently job-hunting, I thought this BBC article on interviews might be informative. As it was, it wasn't much help, but good for a laugh, or at least a bit of mild amusement. I note they couldn't resist mentioning Oxbridge admissions interviews, in light of today's news about how we're still failing to admit enough state school applicants.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

MPS Update

As I announced yesterday, I was giving a talk at the well-established Moral Philosophy Seminar in Oxford (where I've previously seen the likes of Scanlon, [Bernard] Williams, Pogge, Sen, Parfit, Raz, etc). I'm happy to say that my talk drew a fair-sized audience and good questions, particularly from Raz and Broome, who both pushed their point a bit. I'm grateful to all who attended.

After the seminar, I got taken to dinner at Cafe Zouk. I could get used to be a speaker and having meals (and drinks) bought for me, given the chance...

There is now a discussion thread up at Ethics-Etc (direct link to the paper here). Any further comments welcome.

(It's also apparent that this talk has led to people searching for me online)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Moral Philosophy Seminar

Today I present the main arguments of my thesis to the Moral Philosophy Seminar - 4:30 in the Philosophy Faculty. Here's an abstract:

This paper challenges the common assumption that democracy requires majority rule. I assume that we can adopt a contractualist approach to uncover the demands of political equality and argue that contractors would not necessarily accept majority rule to make decisions in their society. I first reject broadly consequentialist arguments, arguing that firstly no procedure guarantees ideally best outcomes, secondly that in cases of pluralism there is no need to suppose there is a uniquely best outcome, and thirdly that we need to be fair between different individuals. I develop this need for fairness into a case for weighted lotteries, drawing on the Taurek-Scanlon 'saving the greater number' debate. This leads to my conclusion that democratic ideals can be realized by selecting a random vote to determine the outcomes of decisions.