Thursday, July 31, 2008

Time for a rant.

It is unfortunate that this blog post will go almost unread on the interwebs, but as the history of this great institution of online communication has shown me, that's hardly to the point now, is it?

So, McCain. A war hero. A patriot. A veteran. Gotta say, the man has the political chops needed to convince just about any American that he is worth voting for. I mean, what could make for a better leader? Especially in a country so devoid of understanding of its own military history that romantic militarism isn't just a problem, its THE problem. "He understands our world is dangerous":

Isn't this beautiful? Can't you see the craftsmanship that has gone into this particular piece of political garbage?

Now, don't let me put you offside and get words unceremoniously shoved into my mouth. He was a victim of one of the more horrible places to be in the world: a POW camp. The place on this earth that hasn't got "Geneva" in the dictionary. And that makes him a remarkable spirit, make no mistake. I'm a bit miffed in the above ad as to why voluntary imprisonment through denial of early release counts as an honourable, American thing to do. "Sure, I'll stay in for another round of solitary!" Wow, shows the guy definitely is canny. That'll show em. I think?

Back to my point, the juxtaposition of the war against the "summer of love" is a masterpiece of spin. Of course, while the hippies were out taking drugs and banging each other senseless in an unchristian show of prurient, lustful action, John McCain was out fighting for your freedom. But wait, wasn't part of this strange lefty movement a protest against your unjust war? And if that's the case, then every thing McCain says is up for question, isn't it? Well, unless you are a conservative, military realist. So I suppose its all okay, right?

But that wasn't what got me into this rantin' mood. Well, if I'm going to be honest, my recent Bill Hicks pilgrimage may have something to do with it, and it is terribly unfortunate that I'll never have the skills in dark poetry and satire that Bill did. But while reading this post in (to my mind) the quite respectable Framing Science Blog by Dr. Matt Nisbet, I came across this:

Isn't this great? Gotta love them always honest, considerate American politicians. I'm so ignorant! Of course the only solution to the oil crisis in America in a world with dwindling supplies of this natural resources is to invest even more money in creating an entirely new site where we can dig up the planet and kill a whole bunch of land, using a resource that is going to run out very soon! Wow! Thanks John McCain, for enlightening me. As for Obama, well, the fact that he won't endorse the offshore drilling projects or new oilfields is obviously because he has absolutely no policy on energy!

Or maybe, because he isn't on the payroll of the oil industry.

To at least try to introduce some ethics into this diatribe, consider the very basic ethical problem we encounter when the money of lobby groups impacts in such a way so as to not educate the public on the issues at stake in their voting, but instead lead to lead to what Nisbet refers to as "playing fast and loose with the truth" in order to fulfill the preferences of the said lobbyists. Truth, Justice and the American way indeed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bad Science for the masses

So the SMH, in all its scientific integrity, reported on pot smokers being not so mellow. The venerable Kate Benson, medical reporter, writes:

More than a third of people who present at Sydney emergency departments after smoking cannabis are violent and half have mental health problems such as severe anxiety and suicidal thoughts, shattering the image that dope smokers are relaxed and sleepy, researchers have found.

Wow, my impressions are certainly shattered. Who would have thought that out of the (no doubt) hundreds of thousands of pot smokers in my country alone, that the ones who ended up in an emergency room were representative of all of them? And further, that the pot smokers who ended up in emergency were likely to be somewhat distressed? I mean, its not like from my visits to emergency (not many of them involving me as a patient, thankfully) I don't see angry, upset or violent people in emergency. This presentation of the study reeks of, among other things, a massive problem with their attribution of causation, and a sampling problem. But, I'm sure that the SMH hoped they could pass it off on the unwitting masses and "do some good"

If the levels of THC in hydroponic gardens are that high, that's a danger, and it may be leading to an increase in psychotic drug users. But I don't think any myths have been shattered here.

I'm wondering if this is the University of New South Wales' bad science, or the SMH's lousy reporting. I'm hoping it is the latter.

Wild speculation

So, I was reading this article in the Sydney Morning Hearld yesterday, and began thinking about Nozick's Experience Machine (as one does).

The computer game industry is fast becoming a defining element of our world. Unbelievable amounts of effort, talent and creativity, not to mention money are poured into this field year after year to satisfy an increasingly widespread demographic of our population. Unfortunately, marketing being as it is, games are fast becoming required to be more and more consuming of the user's resources in order to maintain dominance over the hearts, minds and wallets of the client base. This is not to mention that due to the intensely interactive nature of games today, art no longer imitates life so much as it leads to its creation (seriously, hang out on the Internet for more than about an hour and you will discover entire languages. Forget antrhropology in the world, far stranger cultures exist online). However, I can't help but be concerned by the levels of immersiveness being implied by the article. While Nozick's argument was designed as a refutation of hedonism, as I understand it, I think that it speaks to something else, which is a questioning of the fantastic as a dominant force in a person's life. What does it mean when a former recreational activity can be integrate and come to dominate someone's life, providing pleasure, but consuming substantial resources and creating social interactions which, while genuine, are weaker than those formed in the corporeal world due to the removal of some of the basic risks of the social world? When fun turns into duty (and if anyone out there has a friend who plays Everquest or World of Warcraft, you know what I'm talking about), and social interactions with non-players become left on the wayside?

I don't wish to postulate that computer games are in and of themselves bad things: computer games have for years been an extension of other games functioning as learning and teaching tools, often without the user realising it. They teach decision making, visuo-spatial recognition, and a wide range of teamwork behaviours, they really do. But the same body of literature emerging from psychology about their merits also carries with it a darker set of observations. I'm not necessarily talking about violent computer games making violent people. While that is certainly on the table (sorry gamer kids, it really is), the weakened but still rationalised social features, the immersiveness and escapist quality that can endlessly stimulate many minds, indicate to me that as technology continues to advance in this area at a mind boggling rate, Nozick's machine might leave the realm of thought and actually pose us an applied ethics problem: possessing this machine, do we allow ourselves or others to use it? Especially knowing what we know from thought experiments in the past, and on the problems associated with addictive activities.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Ethical DNA - what a load of shyte

I recently completed this online questionaire. I don't have time to go into the problems I have with it yet, in terms of surveys, questions etc etc. The thing that gets my goat the most is the term 'moral DNA', which really goes into reinforcing the folk conceptions of genetics.
For those of you who are interested in this type of stuff, check out Paul Griffith's site, in particular this article.
There is a stack of links to his publications on his site, and for anyone interested in genetics, in particular folk conceptions of genes and 'public understanding of science' type stuff, his work is pretty cool.

That is

Friday, July 25, 2008

A little lightening of the mood.

With all the killing of puppies that's been going on ( see below), I thought I'd record an event that happened today that made me smile and remember that, despite all these terrible things happening in the world, and the way that the business world loves jerking us around, etc., that there are still nice people around. So, I little back story will be needed, but bear with me.

I'm building a bike at the moment from some old parts, and I needed to deconstruct an old 3-cog chainring setup. It requires a tool that looks a bit like this, a tool which (until now) I did not have access to. So, I rock into a bike shop at lunchtime, and enquire about said chainring wrench (the above tool). The guy doesn't have one for sale, but lends me his, on the verbal agreement that I'd bring it back tomorrow.

It sounds like a small thing, but little things are important. That a person would be willing to lend me a specialty tool instead of forcing me to order one is fantastic. An added bonus? When I enquired as to where I could purchase a T25 torx key, he gave me one of his. For free. Not every day one gets gifted like this.

Its been a good day. For those out there nerdy in their pursuits, I invite you to observe this. The orchestra isn't great, but it is a bunch of non-pros playing. Still, fantastic.

I think what is missing from Rawls is a theory of being awesome.

Politicians and integrity

This topic could run on for ever, but I just read this rad thing on Victorian politicans. In particular, I would like to call your attention to this awesome factoid:

"The Government's reliance on the car came under fire in April when Premier John Brumby used a chauffeur-driven car for a 400-metre trip from Parliament House to 55 Collins Street — to sign an agreement to cut greenhouse emissions."

I don't know why, instead of getting angry about this, it just makes me feel warm inside and very smiley. Like my blood is made from puppies.

Anyone else get that feeling, or have I completely lost the plot?
Also, if anyone else finds such beautiful factoids about politicans and integrity, my eyes would like to look at them in order to maintain this PFB delusion (PFB being 'puppies-for-blood').

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A brief follow up

Apparently, Qantas has something to answer for when it comes to the distribution of information. See here.

The Data Smog

So, I was passed on a link this morn to the NSW Food Authority's register of penalty notices, released in early May this year. My contact expressed her happiness that such information would be released. Her justification, unsurprisingly, was that now people can know who is violating what when it comes to food. Note that this is the penalty register: the offences register is on a separate page. We'll get to a comparison of the two momentarily. For now I want to focus on the former.

Because, being a PhD student, I have a problem with the site, much as I have a problem with lots of things. Too many books = whinges a lot.

So what is what is wrong with this site, for me? It can be summed up best in Alasdair Roberts' catchphrase: data smog. Data Smog is the effect where an institution releases a whole bunch of information under the guise of being a good citizen and letting the folk know what's going on in their world, but ends up releasing so much information so quickly and in such a messy state that they may as well have not released any data at all. The site is a table (sortable by a number of categories) that lists those businesses whom the Food Authority has slapped with a fine regarding a food-related matter: storage, cleaning of food or premises, handling, sale, labelling, etc. On the surface, it looks reasonably manageable. However, the information doesn't really give any substantive insights. To get any information about what particular penalty a particular business has been given, one must click on the link embodied by the penalty code off to the right of the table. This code, again non-descriptive, takes you to the particular information on the case, where you can see the details of the infraction for that business. So, conceivably, if one knew where one was going to dine, or what area, one could scroll through the table to find specific restaurants or restaurants in a particular area.

However, this is all done manually, and requires shifting back and forth from the table on the front page to the specific penalty incurred, and back again, for each offense. Not just each premises, but each offense. So, if an inspector has been having a bad day and goes nuts on a particular joint, there may be a number of incidental penalties that appear in sequence, that one has to look at separately if they are to assess how serious each claim is. For instance, a particular supermarket was fined for labelling a pack of mutton as lamb. Not a serious offense, but still, it is flagged.

Now, I have no problem with all these incidentals being released per se. I'm sure that there are particular religious denominations or others who will find value in such info. But there is no way to screen for a particular offense, for example. So, if someone has a life-threatening condition, say, a bad nut allergy, they can't find who has been charged within the last 2 years (the time period which penalties are noted for) for accidentally introducing nuts into meals. This is important for them, and may influence their choice on where to go based on repeat, or single infractions. However, if one wanted to know this, they'd have to search through all this data manually to get what they wanted. Simple filtering systems aren't exactly new or complicated: If a Microsoft product can do it, it shouldn't be too problematic. Or even just to put a brief description of the infraction within the initial table, for easy viewing.

Never mind that there is no consistency between the penalties and offences tables. In penalties, you click on the penalty rego number to get details, in offences, the business name. Of course, this isn't noted.

I'm all for free information. But it seems like a waste of time and money to throw it out there without at least some rudimentary ability to filter through such information. I mean, because of the two-tier structure of the penalties notices, one couldn't even copy the first table into, say, excel and go from there. They'd have to copy each offense individually. I dont' believe it is enough for governments to provide information to their citizens. They have to provide it in such a way that someone without expert knowledge on the subject can approach the data and manipulate it to acheive their goals, particular when such goals are related to health.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Death's the disease, I'm the cure

yes. To perhaps be paraphrasing that greatest of philosophers, John Rambo, death is now a disease that can be treated with patentable pharmaceuticals. Whew, finally.

A 'small' pharma company has been bought out by Glaxo-SmithKline one the strength of two pharmaceuticals used to prolong life (or to treat death). These pharmaceuticals are still in the clinical trials stage, and despite their potential to supress fertility in subjects (which may even be potential targets for new patents) are said to potentially increase life expectancy by 5 - 10%. And then you drop dead. Aaaah, life. And how do they do this? One pharmaceutical activates the body's sirtuins. Why?

"The hope is that activating sirtuins in people would, like a calorically restricted diet in mice, avert degenerative diseases of aging like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's. There is no Food and Drug Administration category for longevity drugs, so if the company is to submit a drug for approval, it needs to be for a specific disease."

So here we have the crux of it. Instead of eating healthy, and exercising the body, reducing pollution and exercising mind (all often linked to decreasing diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's) we have drugs, patentable drugs, to do this for us.

Forgive my cynicism, but now that death is a disease that is treatable by patentable pharmaceuticals, one has to wonder what (the) good life is.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I can't believe its not Nietzsche

In response to Catie's earlier post of 'I can't believe its not Kant' I have knocked up this little doozy.
Get on board your favourite 'philosopher as pet' train. All the kids are doing it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What is a good person? + Nature/nurture debate

After a couple of interesting talks at the AAP conference this week, I stumbled across this BBC article on goodness of character and the nature/nurture debate, both subjects of which I attended talks about throughout the week.

Luke Russell first off talked about what made an evil person, deciding that our intuitions were a good basis for this, but that current models of evil weren't quite up to the task, and Paul Griffiths today talked about the nature/nurture debate, and how you can't really separate nurture from nature (his example from the animal kingdom was the development of rats and their gene expression based on how much grooming they received from their mother (among other examples)), and that the idea of "human nature" is not just explicable by our DNA (or by our environment).

Anyway I'm a little tipsy right now after the AAP conference dinner so I'll leave it at that for now, IMO the BBC is a little behind in the most recent thinking on these debates! ;)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Wikileaks -- when does freedom of information go too far?

I read with great interest this article on, a fascinating site that allows whistle-blowers to do their thing. As the article mentions, it's already played a huge part in several astonishing cases around the world -- disclosure of information about the looting of Kenya by a former president, money laundering by a Swiss bank, and US interrogation procedures in Guantanamo Bay.

The article looks at criticism of its "free-for-all" policy, publishing actors' tax bills with their SSNs, or scripts for upcoming movies, and for its publishing of Scientology and other secretive religious documents.

All this got me wondering, where should the line be drawn? The old saying "information wants to be free" seems to be the key ethic of wikileaks itself, but how is publishing movie scripts or innocuous tax bills at all useful?

I'm all for freedom of information, but if there's no greater good to be gained from the publishing of it, it seems purely malicious and somewhat counterproductive to the aims of wikileaks itself (establishing it as a reputable source for information, for example). There are certain industries where whistleblowing, although legal, will get you in a lot of trouble if you go through the official channels, and wikileaks adds a good level of anonymous abstraction to the process which can certainly be used for a lot of good.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Can't Believe It's Not Kant!

I saw this article on Cute Overload and just *had* to share.

I Can't Believe It's Not Kant!: "

While the common dog enthusiast may content himself to costume his cur in the guise of hackneyed pop-culture icons, retro-urban folk archetypes, or even perverse attempts at species confusion, the intellectual dog owner seeks to cloak Man's Best Friend not in the artificiality of cloth, but in the transcendence of Truth.' It is for these enlightened few that The Cute Overload School of Philosophy Gift Shop is pleased to offer ...

The Immanuel Kant Doggie Dress-Up Kit!

philosopher (L) pupster (R)

Each kit includes a deluxe leather-bound edition of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason translated into Dog, a set of Categories of the Understanding flash cards, and an easy-to-learn guide to teaching your dog pensive philosophical poses.

To order, contact Ian O.


(Via Cute Overload.)