Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Relationships and Liberty

J. S. Mill argues that individuals should be able to engage in 'experiments in living' free from social pressures (provided that they do not harm others). His On Liberty contains only a brief discussion of Mormon polygamy, which he makes plain that he dislikes but is prepared to tolerate provided that it is consensual. The Subjection of Women has much more to say about marriage, unsurprisingly, but I think it fair to say that it's two main themes are: a) Women should have other options in life than marriage, to ensure that if they choose marriage they do so freely (which, Mill assumes, will make marriage more attractive) and b) Partners within a marriage should be able to decide for themselves how it will operate, which may mean dividing conjugal roles, reversing traditional patterns (e.g. the man being a home-maker), or indeed following them.

As far as I'm aware, Mill has surprisingly little to say about alternatives to marriage. (Surprising, I suggest, because although he was writing in the context of Victorian England, his own relationship with Harriet Taylor must have raised the issue in his mind.) This interesting post about the 'relationship escalator' seemed to illustrate Mill's views about the dangers of social conformism quite nicely. Society expects relationships to follow a certain pattern that simply does not work well (or at all) for those with 'deviant' preferences (polyamory, etc), who find their chosen way of life stigmatised.

Speaking of such things, it's interesting to hear tht mixed-sex couples are now appealing for the right to civil partnerships in the name of equality. This seems like a sensible move to me - it could have been avoided had gay marriage been introduced instead of civil partnerships, but it seems discriminatory if homosexual couples have the option of civil partnership or marriage, while mixed-sex couple can only marry. I doubt that it's likely to lead to state recognition of other non-standard romantic relationships though.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Making a Meal from Party Food

We picked up a selection of Creamy Cheese Canapes from the Tesco Finest party food range, but didn't really know what to do with them, since we weren't planning a party and my partner wouldn't eat them (being vegan). Having the whole pack as a snack would be rather extravagant, not to mention unhealthy (the whole pack having 60% of an adult's RDA fat), so I decided to make a meal out of them - literally.

While my partner had a veggie burger, chips, and baked beans, I decided to have these in place of the burger, with a few chips and beans. The oven was on anyway and these are easy as anything to prepare - stick them in for the last 6 minutes, just before putting the beans in the microwave. The result can be seen below.

My favourites were the breaded camembert wedges. I don't normally have baked camembert, but it was lovely and goo-ey and stringy in the middle. Sadly, by the time I got to the last one, it had cooled down and wasn't as nice. If you're putting these out for a buffet or similar then I'd definitely recommend going for those first, while they're hot.

The goats' cheese and sweet onion pastries (the ones that look like Cornish pasties) were also nice and soft. They were described as lemony as they definitely were, this being the dominant taste (though not overpowering), with just a hint of the onion.

Finally, the Wensleydale and sweet cranberries were definitely my least favourite, but I've never particularly like Wensleydale (or most fruit and cheese combinations). They clashed a bit with the rest of my meal, so I left them for 'dessert', but still wasn't that keen. I guess the advantage of sharing these with others is that hopefully you'll each have different favourites.

Obviously, this isn't the sort of meal I'd ordinarily have, it was only because we #TriedItFree that we ended up with the cheeses at all. If you get some of these for a party, and share them round, then I doubt there will be leftovers - but if there are, they make a surprisingly satisfying basis for a meal on their own.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Random Electoral Timing

It seems that I forgot to plug my first contribution to Politics Upside Down, my department's blog, back in October. It's a piece about election timing and the merits of randomizing, rather than fixed terms (as in the UK since 2011) or Prime Ministerial discretion (as previously the case).

Anyway, if you didn't see it before, a re-worked version of the same basic idea now appears on The Conversation, which will hopefully bring it to a wider audience.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Representing the Regions

This is old news now (a Miliband speech from October), but apparently I missed it at the time. I don't know whether it's official Labour policy - presumably their 2015 manifesto will make this clearer - but Labour are seemingly proposing a senate (second chamber) to 'represent the regions'. While I agree that the current Lords is unrepresentative, on this front and others, this seems like an odd choice of remedy.

First, why should regions be represented, rather than people? Israel, for example, has no regional constituencies but uses a nation-wide PR system. If it happens that people vote along regional lines, so be it, but other cleavages may be more important and there's no obvious reason why our political institutions ought to be designed around geography (the idea that 'all politics is local' may be a consequence of these institutions, rather than a justification for them - as Andrew Rehfeld argues).

Secondly, the House of Commons is already elected on a geographical basis, so presumably the regions are already represented there. If we're to have an elected second chamber, why not constitute it on some other basis? For instance, we could assign people to constituencies based on age or even randomly (again, Rehfeld's proposal).

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Pears and JD

Here's the recipe I promised in an earlier post (again, it was Eloise who made this and, again, I #TriedForLess thanks to a Tesco voucher for the pears - and the JD was bought in a Black Friday promotion!)
4 large pears, halved and thinly sliced
2-3 shots of Jack Daniels
Sugar to taste – I used about a teaspoon on each layer
Ginger and cinnamon – about a teaspoon each altogether
Drizzle some JD in the bottom of a flat oven dish. Place a layer of pears over it. Sprinkle sugar, cinnamon and ginger over the top, then pour some more JD over it. Repeat with each layer. Avoid putting sugar on the top unless actively seeking caramel. You’ll get 2-4 layers depending on the size of your dish. Put in a preheated oven at gas mark 7 (approx. 220 C) and cook for half an hour.
Serves 4-5.

Unfortunately, I didn't try any of the pears without the JD treatment, so it's hard for me to say how sweet (etc) they are naturally. I can, however, recommend this recipe. Now we just need to find a use for the leftovers...

Monday, December 01, 2014

Hakim, Attractiveness, and Voting

We had Catherine Hakim give a talk at our department seminar (C2G2) last week, based on her controversial book Honey Money. I haven't, to be honest, read the book itself, so wasn't sure what to expect. The idea that attractive people benefit from their attractiveness in all sorts of ways sounds like a typical case of much academic research being done to prove the bleeding obvious, but I think Hakim does raise important issues.

Some people had been uneasy about the invitation, I believe because they thought that Hakim's research was somehow anti-feminist. In fact, she did a good job of emphasizing that her findings apply to both men and women, using Barack Obama as one of her main examples (though she did note some particular issues of concern to women - apparently women, on average, possess more 'erotic capital' then men, but are less effective in exchanging it for other goods). I thought she might try drawing all kinds of unwarranted normative conclusions, such as suggesting that women should exploit their erotic capital in order to get ahead (which I believe is the message of Lean In), but I was pleased that Hakim didn't in fact seem to make any normative claims at all, merely to present her findings on the effects of attractiveness.

Attractive people, she said, are likely to earn 10-20% more and also to win around 15% more votes in elections. (Other studies have also suggested that Beauty Pays.) On almost any account of justice, this seems like an injustice - and one that hasn't gone unnoticed, particularly by the 'ugly'.

It's interesting to see that BBC coverage of this book raises the issue of attractiveness in elections (although suggesting that the effect is only 2%).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Winter Recipes

While I'm not a big fan of the colder weather, I do rather like winter cooking - stews, casseroles, and the like. As a new member of Tesco's Orchard programme, I was pleased to receive some vouchers from Tesco for their Elfe potatoes and root vegetables, which look like just the thing and meant I should have #TriedForLess. Unfortunately the branch I visited didn't actually have the Elfe potatoes, so I wasn't able to make use of that voucher :( Still, we did pick some up in an online order (where I couldn't use the voucher, but they were on offer anyway) so I got to try them anyway. We did get some parsnips and pears though - the parsnips went in the casserole, while the pears are for a later post.

My partner is the main cook in our household. She can turn ingredients like this:

Into a tasty meal like this:

Ok, casserole isn't too difficult. In fairness, that's one I could manage to make myself - but credit where it's due, this was her effort. And she was also able to turn the leftover potatoes into a soup for a lighter lunch. Here I am about to enjoy that (excuse the clutter in the background - we still haven't sorted the conservatory since moving!):

Goes good with a bit of warm French bread:

Anyone got favourite winter recipes to share?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Electoral Ping-Pong

A tied election in Florida was decided by drawing numbered ping-pong balls out of a bag. In fact, they drew names out of a bag, to decide who got to call a coin toss, to decide who drew the first ball - sounds like something worthy of Venice! Some interesting comments on the piece too, ranging from those who suggest that we may as well select all politicians by lottery to those who suggest that an IQ test would be better.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lotteries Improve Access

A study, involving academics from the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, has concluded that lotteries for school admissions can improve access to elite universities. This is, as long-time readers may remember, a topic that I've previously published on.

The news coverage linked to above is only from a student newspaper, but I couldn't help thinking it interesting that, by way of balance, they include the opinion of a 2nd year undergraduate. While I'm sure there are some good arguments against lotteries, these weren't really explored - rather, the coverage seemed to exhibit false balance.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Democracy and Referenda

Here's a selection of popular pieces on democracy and referenda... Martin Gilbert applauds the Scottish independence referendum for bringing about greater engagement and participation. George Schöpflin cautions that referenda are unaccountable and may be instruments of populism, rather than democracy. Chris Prosser points out that agenda-setters are often able to manipulate referendum outcomes. Alex Hern argues that the government's use of referenda is opportunistic, rather than principled.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


I've been quiet of late. Partly due to on-going technical issues, but mostly because I've been gearing up to move to the other end of the country (again). From next week, I officially take up a new position at the University of Southampton. My new department has an active group blog, Politics Upside Down, so maybe I'll be blogging there as well as here (and occasionally elsewhere) in future.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

EUDO Debate on Secession

Hot on the heels of my last bit of guest-blogging, I was recently invited to contribute to a EUDO debate on secession. You can read my contribution here and the whole debate here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Attitudes to Alcohol Pricing

A new survey reveals that Scottish attitudes to minimum pricing legislation are split, with slightly more in favour than against the measure. Interestingly, "People educated to degree level were much more likely to approve of minimum pricing than those who were not". So much for the liberalising effect of higher education! (I've written on this here [subscription required].)

Monday, June 09, 2014

Love Locks and Public Nuisance Legislation

According to Mill's harm principle, the state or society may only interfere with an individual's actions in order to prevent harm to others. This is generally taken to restrict paternalistic or moralistic legislation, which raises questions about many generally-accepted laws (including those on drugs, incest, seat belts, etc).

I wasn't previously aware of the trend for couples of signify their love by attaching a lock to a bridge and throwing away the key, but apparently this has been a 'thing' since at least 2009. Moreover, enough of these 'love locks' can actually damage bridges. As reported (see article in link before last), some places, including Rome, have banned these love locks.

Is this ban consistent with the harm principle? On first sight, perhaps not: it would seem to be stretching the notion of 'harm' to suppose that they are. Admittedly, Mill does suggest that 'public decency' might provide grounds for certain restrictions, which seems to be allowing a limited place for something other than harm to justify interference. However, on further consideration, such a ban might be upheld as a protection of property rights. I wouldn't want someone attaching a lock to my fence, even if the lock didn't in any way damage the fence. Presumably, there's little reason to object to a bridge-owner saying that locks should only be attached to her bridge with her consent.

Matters are slightly more complicated when it comes to public bridges, where there is no particular owner as such. Why shouldn't members of the public attach love locks to a bridge that is (in part) theirs? I suppose, however, there is an answer to be found based on the fact that the bridge does not belong to that couple exclusively but to all members of the public. One cannot, for instance, freely block a public road, because that interferes with others using it for their own purposes. While love locks don't prevent others from crossing a bridge, they do amount to one individual (or one couple) assuming rights over public property as if it belonged to them alone.

Monday, June 02, 2014

A Real Life Wilt Chamberlain Case

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues that free market transactions will, if not interfered with, upset distributive patterns, such as equality. Nozick's famous example features the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. In Nozick's example, Chamberlain signs a contract giving him 25 cents out of each ticket sold for his games, the result being that at the end of the season he is vastly richer than everyone else.

Given that few current students (especially in the UK) have heard of Wilt Chamberlain, the example is sometimes made more relevant by substituting the name of a more recent sports star, such as David Beckham or Wayne Rooney. I thought it interesting that ex-England cricketer Andy Flintoff has apparently signed a contract like Chamberlain's, giving him £1 from each ticket sold (above a certain number). It looks like a nice example to use in future.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ballot Ordering

When voting in yesterday's European elections, I was struck by the fact that the first parties on the ballot paper were Britain First and the BNP. It seems that the Scottish Government is considering alternatives to alphabetical ordering, including random ordering.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Food Regulation

As long-time followers of this blog will know, I have an interest in potentially paternalistic regulations. It's interesting to see that there are now calls for (unhealthy) food to be regulated in the same way as tobacco. The BBC article has one expert point out that we need food, whereas we don't need tobacco. This misses the point that the main justification for regulating tobacco (e.g. the ban on smoking in public places) is that it causes harm to others. While my eating unhealthy food might cause you some harm (e.g. by setting a bad example or through costing the NHS more) these harms are indirect and uncertain.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Apologies for Lack of Posts

I realise that this blog has not been updated much of late. That's partly because, with a return to teaching for the first time in 9 months, I've been rather busy. This is compounded by the fact that for some reason (an outdated browser?) I now seem unable to post here at work. Obviously I can still blog from home, but I used to do much of my blogging from work, partly because we have metered internet at home, but mostly because it can fill in 'dead' time like empty office hours or just before a meeting. Rest assured that the blog is not intentionally dead; while updates may be less frequent, I do still intend to keep posting when I get the chance.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

First-Time Compulsory Voting

The idea of first-time compulsory voting is discussed on Democratic Audit. (It's an idea that I'd previously proposed myself.) Unfortunately, the text doesn't have any links - I guess it may have been simply copied and pasted from the IPPR report, rather than being reformatted for blog publication. I'd be interested to see Andrew Adonis's thoughts on young people voting.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

How to Derive Ought from Is: SNP on Alcohol Pricing

The great Scottish philosopher David Hume famously remarked that one cannot derive an ought (that is, a normative conclusion about what one should do) from an is (that is, a mere statement of fact). It seems, however, that the SNP have cracked the problem. Alcohol is cheap, therefore minimum pricing is needed. Why didn't Hume, or one of the many philosophers who've considered his problem, think of that?