Monday, November 29, 2010

Man Can Live on Potatoes Alone

One of the many advantages of living with Eloise is her cooking, sporadically documented here. As you'll see, plenty of variety (over the weekend, we had bean chilli, curry, and vegetable roast, all supplemented with homemade mince pies and shortbread). I'm a simple soul though and quite like my basic carbs, usually in the form of bread (which Eloise also bakes herself), though potato is almost as good.

I wouldn't go as far as this American man, who set out to prove that the potato isn't as bad as many think, by eating an all-potato diet for two whole months. And he lost weight. So much for the Atkins diet!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Worth Measuring but not Funding?

There's been much controversy about recent moves in UK education funding, which in effect remove government teaching subsidies from most arts courses in order to prioritise the hard sciences and engineering, which (supposedly) produce greater economic returns. It's been said that the REF's measure of research 'impact' is too narrowly focused on economic results (such as development of new products).

I see that the Con-Dem government recognize that economic performance isn't all that matters and want to measure people's happiness, rather than wealth. I wonder if this is simply because they hope that the figures will look better, or whether it signals that they might change their minds over the narrow economics-driven focus of their education policy...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nudges and Shoves

The idea that it's permissible to 'nudge' people in desirable directions has received much attention over the last few years. I've noted and commented on various incentive schemes before.

There is arguably a significant difference between offering an incentive to make one course of action more desirable and a threat or penalty to make another action less desirable. (This difference need not be one in freedom - I can agree with Steiner that threats don't reduce liberty, but they do render the agent worse off.)

It seems that some are considering a tax on junk food as a way of combating obesity. This, however, seems to me the wrong way to go about things. It ignores Mill's observation that “Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste” (On Liberty, ch. 5: p.111 of my edition).

The BBC article draws an analogy with smoking, which it suggests is taxed because it is unhealthy. There is an important difference, however, in that smoking is often harmful to others - hence the ban on smoking in public places, which is not paternalistic and can probably be justified consistently with Mill's harm principle. Arguably a tax can also be regarded as preventing (or at least reducing) harm to others, rather than to the agent him- or herself.

To ban junk food would seem to be paternalistic and thus objectionable. To tax it seems to differ only in degree.

If those in power wish to encourage healthy lifestyles, I think they should employ the carrot rather than the stick - for instance subsidizing fresh fruit and vegetables or doing more to encourage cycling and other forms of exercise.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where to Publish?

A familiar problem for those in the later stages of their PhDs or early career (i.e. in temporary jobs) is the trade off between the need to publish in good journals and the need to publish quickly, meaning you don't have time to wait a year for a rejection. There's an interesting-looking thread on the best (philosophy) journals for junior people to submit to over at the Philosophy Smoker...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Correlation vs Causation?

I never really did enough political science to get a proper understanding of maths and stats, but the one handy question I learned (which can be asked of a lot of presentations) is whether the findings show causation (i.e. A actually results in B) or merely correlation (i.e. the two merely happen to occur together, perhaps because both are results of C).

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that anyone asked that question before this scaremongering claim that texting leads to underage drinking and sex:
Parents have been warned to watch out for signs of excessive texting in their children, amid concerns it poses a new health risk.
Teenagers sending 120 text messages a day are more likely to drink, smoke and have sex, claims a US doctor.

That teenagers who text heavily are more likely to have done these things does not mean that texting causes them to engage in such activities. The causation could possibly run the other way round or, perhaps more plausibly, it could be that both behaviours are explained by some third factor, such as high disposable income or lack of parental supervision.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Re-Running Elections

Two high court judges have ordered the re-running of this year's General Election in Greater Manchester, after finding Phil Woolas guilty of making false claims about his rival. Not as bad as in the States though, where the recent elections saw FOUR deceased candidates win (via Thom Brooks). If we had an electoral system that produced a rank ordering over candidates, that was independent of irrelevant alternatives (as Arrow suggests), then this wouldn't be a problem. As it is, the system merely picks a 'top choice' and will need to be re-run...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Want to be my colleague?

Of potential interest to anyone finishing a PhD in normative philosophy: my department are currently advertising for a one year lecturer (Feb 2011-Jan 2012) to teach courses primarily in moral theory and metaethics. Deadline 12 noon on 18/11/10.

Enfranchising Prisoners

My recent talk in St Andrews addressed the issue of immigrants, but one thing that came up in it was whether criminals ought to be enfranchised. It's interesting to read that the European Court of Human Rights has just ruled that a blanket ban on prisoners voting violates their human rights. Interestingly, it seems that this doesn't prevent some - perhaps even most - being disenfranchised, but a blanket ban is unlawful. Perhaps it would be enough to allow just a few to vote.

Monday, November 01, 2010

French Paternalism

In another recent news story that would have Mill spinning in his grave (following my earlier report of this), it seems that French coastguards want to ban swimming the channel on grounds that it's not safe.

There are suggestions that simmers might cause an accident, so if the worry is that it poses a danger to others, then perhaps Mill would allow a ban (though only if it violates an obligation to an assignable individual). Most likely, this is health and safety gone mad. Swimming the channel is likened, in the BBC report, to crossing the M25. Of course, all road-crossing is dangerous, and could cause an accident, so perhaps we should ban people from crossing the road too...