Monday, August 16, 2010

This Situation Calls For A Philosopher!

It's often said that moral philosophers are divorced from real ethical concerns, spending their time discussing pointless issues such as trolley problems (bibliography here). In fact, it seems that these cases aren't that far from real life... Last week a runaway train travelled four miles through London's underground network, causing passenger trains to be diverted. Thankfully no one was stuck on the track and, obviously, a fat man on a bridge was unlikely, given that the train was underground. Nonetheless, I hope someone had a philosopher's phone number in case.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

No Draws = Lotteries?

Long-time readers will no doubt be aware of my on-going interest in all forms of lotteries and (in connection) penalty shoot outs - though not because penalty shoot outs are lotteries as such. In fact, I wrote a chapter on the difference in Soccer & Philosophy, so won't go into that again here. Nonetheless, the gist of my argument was that penalties aren't lotteries - we could simply toss a coin to decide drawn matches, but at least penalties test some relevant skills - but either penalties or lotteries would be an appropriate way to settle a tied contest, the choice between them ultimately resting on what makes for the more entertaining spectacle.

It's interesting to see that Sepp Blatter is apparently considering doing away with draws in the World Cup group stages. Personally, I see no need to do away with draws; it seems a particularly American thing. His reasoning is that defensive teams are encouraged to play for a draw, but I'm unconvinced that introducing the 'lottery' of penalties to resolve the tie will make things any better. This way I'd have thought underdogs (with any confidence in their penalty-taking ability) will have an incentive to play for a draw knowing that they might actually win all of the points!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Who Needs Pupils?

Apparently this school is staying open despite having no pupils. I mentioned it before, but now the decision has been made. Not much more to add to what I said before really, but good to know that in a time of savage cuts to education this is something that won't be cut...

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Vine: Superfreakonomics

Another of my Amazon Vine reviews; this time Superfreakonomics:

I only did a year of economics at university, because I found it rather too mathematical. Levitt and Dubner, however, do a good job of applying the insights and assumption of microeconomics to explaining everyday (and some not so everyday) decision making. They show, for example, that the laws of supply and demand apply to prostitutes, with the prices rising around public holidays and more 'seasonal workers' temporarily entering the profession.

As you may gather, the focus isn't on behaviour typically regarded as economic – in many ways, this is more of a sociology text than an economics one. Nonetheless, if you're interested in learning more about people's behaviour it provides some interesting observations and anecdotes. I haven't read the earlier book, Freakonomics, but it's quite clear that this is more of the same. You can certainly read this without having read that one – indeed, you might find it rather too similar if you have already read the first.

The writing is more like newspaper journalism than an academic text, so fairly approachable for the lay person, while all the references are hidden away at the back, to suggest that they've done their research rather than making things up without being overly off-putting for the reader. It's accessible, but I must say I found the attempts to add in some personal background about some of the people in the book rather uninteresting and also that the chapters weren't as logically structured as they might have been: often the authors go on surprising tangents that have little to do with the main subject of a given discussion, which can detract somewhat from the overall flow and make it hard to remember where you read a particularly interesting fact.

Despite my minor quibbles, I certainly found this book eye-opening. It's not unputdownable – in fact, it took me quite a long time to get round to finishing it – but I do feel that I learned something from it and would go back to it for some of the surprising findings and anecdotes.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Revise and Resubmits

A new thread up on Leiter discussing whether journals should abolish 'revise and resubmit' decisions. It promises to be an interesting one...

Here's my comment:

I think I agree with Bill Rapaport, that the R&R system is not necessarily a bad one, it's just that it doesn't always work as well as it should. I certainly know that I've had plenty of papers improve substantially as a result of a R&R verdict, whether or not subsequently accepted.

On the other hand, journal editors need to exercise discretion. I think that there can be value in sending the revised paper to a totally new referee (ideally along with the original ones), to get a fresh look at it. Problems arise when there's a long time lag involved (though unavoidable at times), when the referees give conflicting recommendations/advice, and when some of their comments are idiosyncratic. A good editor should of course be willing to accept a paper even if the author doesn't do everything the referees suggest.

There is one other problem with the system, which probably affects me more as a referee than an author, and that is that I probably do tend to give to many R&R verdicts. It's a safe 'middle ground' for the many papers that show some promise but also have some flaws. Again, though, the editor's role is important here, since there's a difference between the verdict given by each of two or three referees and the overall verdict given by the journal. The editor needs to make the call when, say, an accept and an R&R verdict ought to be an acceptance (or conditional acceptance), rather than R&R.

That the defects aren't necessary to the system doesn't, however, mean that the system ought not to be abolished. It might be that the chances of having a well functioning R&R process are so slim that we would be better off abolishing it. But I don't think that's so. I think that - while there will occasionally be cases where things go wrong - most journals can manage the system reasonably well (and it is of course open for any given journal to decide how many R&Rs, if any, to give).

One possible improvement would be to have more distinction within R&Rs. Some journals/editors do seem to distinguish minor and major revisions, but it seems to me that R&R can sometimes basically be a conditional acceptance and other times is no more than a vague willingness to look at the paper again if you completely re-write it (rather than permanently rejecting it). Perhaps it would be useful if these were always clearly distinguished.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Not For Profit: Online Reading Group

The folks over at In Socrates' Wake are hosting an online reading group on Nussbaum's Not For Profit, starting 25th August. To be honest, I'm not that big a fan of online reading groups, though I have participated in one before.

The book sounded quite interesting, so I took a look this afternoon while in the Bod for something else. To be honest, most of it is fairly predictable stuff about how the humanities foster critical thinking which is necessary for democracy and that we shouldn't neglect them in favour of a focus on the sciences and economic growth. There's a rather critical review of it here. Some of it drew on her previous work on virtue ethics and capabilities though and it was on the whole quite interesting and well written. It might even come in use for the 'Philosophy and Life' lectures that I have to give next semester in Stirling, so I think I'll keep an eye on ISW for discussion.

Amazon (UK) link: