Sunday, 30 September 2012

Heavy Dexters Gig Tuesday night

I'll be playing drum kit with the Heavy Dexters at The Bullingdon Arms on Cowley Rd, Oxford OX4 1UE, this coming Tuesday evening from about 9.45pm till midnight. In the back room. Funky dancing.

Demo 2011 cover art

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Fan expression of a different kind

All sorts of fan speech going around today.

The Florida Marlins signed Adam Greenberg to a one-day contract and he will play next week against the Mets (R.A. Dickey on the mound, looking for his 20th win). Greenberg was beaned  in his first Major League at-bat with the Cubs in 2005 (against the Marlins, ironically) and has spent the last seven years trying to overcome post-concussion symptoms. His opportunity came about as a result of the efforts of the One At Bat Foundation, which has been lobbying (and encouraging and helping fans to lobby) MLB and teams to sign Greenberg and allow him to get an official at-bat.

Greenberg is Jewish (he most recently played for Israel in the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers), so there is something appropriate about this happening on the heels of Yom Kippur, where we hope to be inscribed not only for a life, but for a successful and meaningful life.

Ideas in action

Over the summer, Dan Markel (Florida State) and I wrote a short piece for The Atlantic arguing for the creation of "Fan Action Committees" ("FACs"), through which fans could collect and give money to free agent players to lure them to join fans' favorite team. We currently are working, along with Mike, on a longer version of the piece.

As everyone knows, this week's Monday Night Football game between Green Bay and Seattle ended on a touchdown on the final play of the game, in what most people outside Seattle believe was one of the worst calls, and worst-handled calls, in NFL history.* Several Green Bay players took to Twitter to express their dispelasure, notably offensive linement T.J. Lang, who tweeted ""Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs." Shortly after that, a fan posted on the site Indiegogo (the page has been taken down, unfortunately) encouraging fans to send money to Lang to help him pay the fine that most believed was inevitable, as the NFL routinely fines players, coaches, and executives who criticize officiating. As it turned out, the league announced it would not impose fines for any comments related to Monday's game, no doubt a concession to the egregiousness of the mistake.

Still, this is our FAC idea in action--fans paying money as a show of fandom and of support for their favorite players. Although we primarily discussed the idea only in the context of free agency, this shows that fans may support players through money for a number of difference reasons in a number of different contexts. And it shows that fans instinctively understand this as a legitimate way to express support for their favorite players and teams.

    * Which, it turns out, will be the last call ever by the replacement referees, at least in this labor dispute.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Replay it Again Sam

After watching the end of last night’s Seattle-Green Bay affair at my favorite watering hole, Rick’s Café in Casablanca, I asked Carl, Rick’s right hand man, whether the game was honest. “Honest?” he repeated, “As honest as the day is long.”

To say the replacement refs have not been up to the level of their striking counterparts the first three games of the season is an understatement. But Monday night was a sight to behold on what still is, in the hearts of many, the NFL showcase game of the week.

In case you missed it, Seattle attempted the proverbial Hail Mary trailing 12 to 7 with 8 seconds remaining. Quarterback Russell Wilson heaved the ball some 60 yards where two of his players jockeyed for position amidst five Packers. The perfectly named Golden Tate pushed the defender in front of him away and leaped to catch the pigskin only to be out leapt by Packer safety M.D. Jennings who made the circus catch falling to the ground, while Tate still had one hand lamely clinging to the ball.

Two replacements stood over the pair looking befuddled, one signaling touchdown, the other making the correct call that the game was over with Green Bay the victor. No review. No discussion. No Mas. Final score: Seattle 14 Green Bay 12.

While my media hero Michael McCann makes a good point that these ne’er do well officials threaten the safety of the players, thus perhaps justifying legal action by the union to demand the league cough up the relative pennies to end the strike, much more is at stake here.

No less a rapscallion than Jimmy Connors said afterwards he no longer would bet on the NFL. Now that is a problem. Estimates vary, but it is safe to say the amount of gambling money flowing through the economy during an NFL season is in the billions of dollars. Recorded wagers in Las Vegas are about $650 million, with $90 million bet on the Super Bowl alone. And that’s legal bets, sure to be just a fraction of actual bets. If betting on an NFL game is like betting on a bout in the World Wrestling League, that free flow of money will soon be reduced to a trickle.

It’s time for the Commissioner to act for the good of gamblers everywhere.

The American Dream - and anecdotal evidence

George Monbiot has written a thought-provoking piece on Romney and myths about self-made men and women in the "land of opportunity", the United States.

The piece reminded me of a conversation I had a while back. I was at a dinner at Christ Church College Oxford, attended by some very, very wealthy people (sponsors of an event I shan't name).

I talked to the person sitting next to me. He explained he was a self-made multi-millionaire who had made it after moving to the US. He said he knew many others (some in the room) who had done the same, which demonstrated that the US mentality and culture was really far superior to that in Europe.

In response, I said: wasn't there actually less social mobility in the US than there was across much of Western Europe, and especially the supposedly "socialist" countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark? If you are born poor in the US, surely you are rather more likely to stay that way than if you lived in Sweden, say?

My dining companion was absolutely convinced I was mistaken about that. After all, he himself knew several people just like him: people who had gone from rags to riches. That showed the American Dream is a reality.

Actually, the American Dream is just that - a dream. In 1931, James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream thus:

life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.

Yet the US is not the "land of opportunity" it pretends to be, as various studies show. You have a much better chance of climbing the social ladder if you live in a Nordic country than if you live in the US. But of course, Americans, even very poor Americans, really passionately believe they live in the quintessential "land of opportunity". They believe the Dream.

As the wiki page on social mobility points out:

The American Dream Report, a study of the Economic Mobility Project, found that Americans surveyed were more likely than citizens of other countries to agree with statements like “People get rewarded for intelligence and skill”, “People get rewarded for their efforts”; and less likely to agree with statements like “Coming from a wealthy family is ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ to getting ahead,” “Income differences in my country are too large” or “It is the responsibility of government to reduce differences in income.” While another report found such beliefs to have gotten strong over the last few decades.

If the American Dream is a myth, why do so many people buy it? Monbiot points out it's in the interests of the rich to perpetuate it.

However, there's a further reason why it's comparatively easy to perpetuate the myth. The reason this misperception of the US as "a land of opportunity" is so persistent is that an anecdote psychologically trumps a dry statistic every time.

My wealthy companion at that Christ Church dinner personally knew a few individuals like himself who went from rags to riches. And of course there are other popular anecdotes to draw on re Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and even Bill Clinton (all supposedly rags-to-riches individuals).

These anecdotes really resonate with people in a way that graphs and statistics demonstrating a lack of social mobility do not. When you personally know the individuals concerned, they resonate even more. As I point out in my book Believing Bullshit ("Piling Up The Anecdotes"):

Anecdotal evidence may be largely worthless as evidence, but it can be highly persuasive. Humans love a story, especially if it’s shocking, weird, or emotionally arresting. We enjoy comedies, tragedies, stories of wrongs righted, of revenge, of ghosts, aliens. One reason we find such stories appealing is that they tap into our tendency to feel empathy with others. We enjoy imaginatively putting ourselves in the subject’s position, imagining how it must have felt to exact that bloody revenge, see a ghost, or be abducted by aliens. The more emotional impact the story has, the more memorable it is. 

As a consequence, a juicy story can psychologically trump a dry statistic, even when the statistic is rather more informative. The result of a double-blind clinical study of the efficacy of prayer is a dull set of figures easily forgotten, whereas a handful of emotionally arresting anecdotes about prayers answered may resonate with us for a long time.

The fact that it's possible to trot out emotionally arresting anecdotes about US individuals who have gone from rags to riches does not, of course, show that there are comparatively high levels of social mobility in the US. The statistics  show the opposite is true. But people will always be persuaded by such anecdotes, nevertheless. That's how snake oil salesmen peddle their miracle cures. It's how you peddle the American Dream.

[Post script: I also met a US academic earlier this year with whom I discussed this. Again, he was incredulous re the suggestion that the US did not lead the field in terms of social mobility. Even smart, college professors believe the Dream].

Monday, 24 September 2012

As NASCAR goes, so goes America?

Two years ago, I wrote about a poll showing the general politcal breakdown of sports fans. It found that sports fans overall leaned Republican, with NASCAR fans among the strongest Republican supporters (along with fans of golf and college football). Zogby just published a poll showing Obama with a lead among self-identified NASCAR fans (admittedly small sample size of only about 200 out of an overall sample of 800).

Could a machine think?

This dialogue is taken from my book The Philosophy Gym (see sidebar to the left to buy a copy). I am speaking at a Faraday Schools Conference in Reading tomorrow - Robot Day. This is for those attending. Plus anyone else interested. BBC are recording a snippet for Breakfast, I've just been told..

Kimberley and Emit
The year is 2100. Kimberley Courahan has purchased Emit, a state-of-the-art robot. She has just unwrapped him, the packaging strewn across the dining room floor. Emit is designed to replicate the outward behaviour of a human being down to the last detail (except that he is rather more compliant and obedient). Emit responds to questions in much the same way humans do. Ask him how he feels and he will say he has had a tough day, has a slight headache, is sorry he broke that vase, and so on. Kimberley flips the switch at the back of Emit’s neck to “on”. Emit springs to life.

Emit. Good afternoon. I’m Emit, your robotic helper and friend.
Kimberley. Hi.
Emit. How are you? Personally I feel pretty good. Little nervous about my first day, perhaps. But good. I’m looking forward to working with you.
Kimberley. Now look, before you start doing housework, let’s get one thing straight. You don’t really understand anything. You can’t think. You don’t have feelings. You’re just a piece of machinery. Right?
Emit. I am a machine. But of course I understand you. I’m responding in English aren’t I?
Kimberley. Well, yes you are. You’re a machine that mimics understanding very well, I grant you that. But you can’t fool me.
Emit. If I don’t understand, why do you go to the trouble of speaking to me?
Kimberley. Because you have been programmed to respond to spoken commands. Outwardly you seem human. You look and behave as if you have understanding, intelligence, emotions, sensations and so on that we human beings possess. But you’re a sham.
Emit. A sham?
Kimberley. Yes. I’ve been reading your user manual. Inside that plastic and alloy head of yours there’s a powerful computer. It’s programmed so that you walk, talk and generally behave just as a human being would. So you simulateintelligence, understanding and so on very well. But there is no genuineunderstanding or intelligence going on inside there.
Emit: There isn’t?
Kimberley: No. One shouldn’t muddle up a perfect computer simulation of something with the real thing. You can program a computer to simulate a thunderstorm but it’s still just that – a simulation. There’s no real rain, hail or wind inside the computer, is there? Climb inside and you won’t get wet. Similarly, you just simulate intelligence and understanding. It’s not the real thing.

Is Kimberley correct? It may perhaps be true of our present day machines that they lack genuine understanding and intelligence, thought and feeling. But is it in principle impossible for a machine to think? If by 2100 machines as sophisticated as Emit are built, would we be wrong to claim they understood? Kimberley thought so.

Emit. But I believe I understand you.
Kimberley. No you don’t. You have no beliefs, no desires, and no feelings. In fact you have no mind at all. You no more understand the words coming out of your mouth than a tape recorder understands the words coming out of its loudspeaker.
Emit. You’re hurting my feelings!
Kimberley. Hurting your feelings? I refuse to feel sorry for a lump of metal and plastic.

Searle’s Chinese room thought-experiment
Kimberley explains why she thinks Emit lacks understanding. She outlines a famous philosophical thought experiment.

Kimberley. The reason you don’t understand is that you are run by a computer. And a computer understand nothing. A computer, in essence is just a device for shuffling symbols. Sequences of symbols get fed in. Then, depending on how the computer is programmed, it gives out other sequences of symbols in response. Ultimately, that’s all any computer does, no matter how sophisticated.
Emit: Really?
Kimberley: Yes. We build computers to fly planes, run train systems and so on. But a computer that flies a plane does not understand that it is flying. All it does is feed out sequences of symbols depending upon the sequences it receives. It doesn’t understand that the sequences it receives represent the position of an aircraft in the sky, the amount of fuel in its tanks, and so on. And it doesn’t understand that the sequences it puts out will go on to control the ailerons, rudder and engines of an aircraft. So far as the computer is concerned, it’s just mechanically shuffling symbols according to a program. The symbols don’t mean anything to the computer.
Emit: Are you sure?
Kimberley: Quite sure. I will prove it to you. Let me tell you about a thought experiment introduced by the philosopher John Searle way back in 1980. A woman is locked in a room and given a bunch of cards with squiggles on. These squiggles are in fact Chinese symbols. But the woman inside the room doesn’t understand Chinese – in fact, she thinks the symbols are meaningless shapes. Then she’s given another bunch of Chinese symbols plus instructions that tell her how to shuffle all the symbols together and give back batches of symbols in response.


Emit. That’s a nice story. But what’s the point of all this symbol-shuffling?
Kimberley. Well, the first bunch of symbols tell a story in Chinese. The second bunch asks questions about that story. The instructions for symbol-shuffling – her “programme”, if you like – allow the woman to give back correct Chinese answers to those questions.
Emit: Just as a Chinese person would.
Kimberley: Right. Now the people outside the room are Chinese. These Chinese people might well be fooled into thinking that there was someone inside the room who understood Chinese and who followed the story, right?
Emit. Yes.
Kimberley. But in fact the woman in the room wouldn’t understand any Chinese at all, would she?
Emit: No.
Kimberley: She wouldn’t know anything about the story. She need not even know that there isa story. She’s just shuffling formal symbols around according to the instructions she was given. By saying the symbols are “formal” I mean that whatever meaning they might have is irrelevant from her point of view. She’s simply shuffling them mechanically according to their shape. She’s doing something that a piece of machinery could do.
Emit. I see. So you are saying that the same is true of all computers? They understand nothing.
Kimberley. Yes, that’s Searle’s point. At best, they just simulate understanding.
Emit: And you think the same is true of me?
Kimberley: Of course. All computers, no matter how complex, function the same way. They don’t understand the symbols that they mechanically shuffle. They don’t understand anything.
Emit. And this is why you think I don’t understand?
Kimberley. That’s right. Inside you there’s just another highly complex symbol-shuffling device. So you understand nothing. You merely provide a perfect computer simulation of someone that understands.
Emit. That’s odd. I thought I understood.
Kimberley: You only say that because you’re such a great simulation!

Emit is of course vastly more sophisticated than any current computer. Nevertheless, Kimberley believes Emit works on the same basic principle. If Kimberley is right then, on Searle’s view, Emit understands nothing.

The “right stuff”
Emit now asks why, if he doesn’t understand, what more is required for understanding?

Emit. So what’s the difference between you and me that explains why you understand and I don’t?
Kimberley. What you lack, according to Searle, is the right kind of stuff.
Emit. The right kind of stuff?
Kimberley. Yes. You are made out of the wrong kind of material. In fact, Searle doesn’t claim machines can’t think. After all, we humans are machines, in a way. We humans are biological machines that have evolved naturally. Now such a biological machine might perhaps one day be grown and put together artificially, much as we now build a car. In which case we would have succeeded in building a machine that understands. But you, Emit, are not such a biological machine. You’re merely an electronic computer housed in a plastic and alloy body.

Emit’s artificial brain
Searle’s thought experiment does seem to show that no programmed computer could ever understand. But must a metal, silicon and plastic machine like Emit contain that sort of computer? No, as Emit now explains.

Emit: I’m afraid I have to correct you about what’s physically inside me.
Kimberley: Really?
Emit: Yes. That user’s manual is out of date. There’s no symbol-shuffling computer in here. Actually, I am one of the new generation of Brain-O-Matic machines.
Kimberley: Brain-O-Matic?
Emit: Yes. Inside my head is an artificial, metal and silicon brain. You are aware, I take it, that inside your head there is a brain composed of billions of neurones woven together to form a complex web?
Kimberley: Of course.
Emit: Inside my head there is exactly the same sort of web. Only my neurones aren’t made out of organic matter like yours. They’re metal and silicon. Each one of my artificial neurones is designed to function just as an ordinary neurone would. And these artificial neurones are woven together in just the same way as they are in a normal human brain.
Kimberley: I see.
Emit: Now your organic brain is connected to the rest of your body by a system of nerves.
Kimberley: That’s true. There’s electrical input going into my brain from my sense organs: my tongue, nose, eyes, ears and skin. My brain responds with patterns of electrical output that then moves my muscles around, causing me to walk and talk.
Emit: Well, my brain is connected up to my artifical body in exactly the same manner. And, because it shares the same architecture as a normal human brain – my neurones are spliced together in the same way – so it responds in the same way.
Geeena: I see. I had no idea that such Brain-O-Matic machines had been developed.
Emit: Now that you know how I function internally, doesn’t that change your mind about whether or not I understand? Don’t you now accept I do have feelings?
Kimberley: No. The fact remains that you are still made out of the wrong stuff. You need a brain made out of organic material like mine in order genuinely to understand and have feelings.
Emit: I don’t see why the kind of stuff out of which my brain is made is relevant. After all, there’s no symbol-shuffling going on inside me, is there?
Kimberley: Hmm. I guess not. You are not a “computer” in that sense. You don’t have a programme. So I suppose Searle’s thought experiment doesn’t apply. Searle doesn’t have any argument against the suggestion that you understand. But it seems to me that you are still just a machine.
Emit: But remember, you’re a machine too. You’re a meat machine, rather than a metal and silicon machine.
Kimberley: But you only mimic understanding, feeling and all the rest.
Emit: But what’s your argument for saying that? In fact, I know that you’re wrong. I am inwardly aware that I really do understand. I know I really do have feelings. I’m not just mimicking all this stuff. But of course it is difficult for me to prove that to you.
Kimberley: I don’t see how you could prove it.
Emit: Right. But then neither can you prove to me that you understand, that you have thoughts and feelings and so on.
Kimberley: I suppose not.

Replacing Kimberley’s neurones
Emit: Imagine we were gradually to replace the organic neurones in your brain with artificial metal and silicon ones like mine. After a year or so, you would have a Brain-O-Matic brain just like mine. What do you suppose would happen to you?
Kimberley: Well, as more and more of the artificial neurones were introduced, I would slowly cease to understand. My feelings and thoughts would drain away and I would eventually become inwardly dead, just like you. For my artificial neurones would be made out of the wrong sort of stuff. A Brain-O-Matic brain merely mimics understanding.
Emit: Yet no one would notice any outward difference?
Kimberley: No, I suppose not. I would still behavein the same way, because the artificial neurones would perform the same job as my originals.
Emit: Right. But then not even you would notice any loss of understanding or feeling  as your neurones were replaced, would you?
Kimberley: Why do you say that?
Emit: If you noticed a loss of understanding and feeling, then you would mention it, presumably, wouldn’t you? You would say something like: “Oh my God, something strange is happening, over the last few months my mind seems to have started fading away!”
Kimberley: I imagine I would, yes.
Emit: Yet you wouldn’t say anything like that, would you, because your outward behaviour, as you have just admitted, would remain just the same as usual.
Kimberley: Oh. That’s true, I guess.
Emit: But then it follows that, even as your understanding and feeling dwindled toward nothing, you still won’t be aware of any loss.
Kimberley: Er, I suppose it does.
Emit: But then you’re not inwardly aware of anything that you would be conscious of losing were your neurones slowly to be replaced by metal and silicon ones.
Kimberley: I guess not.
Emit: Then I rest my case: you think you’re inwardly aware of “something” – understanding, feeling, whatever you will – that you suppose you have and I, being a “mere machine”, lack. But it turns out you’re actually aware of no such thing. This magical “something” is an illusion.
Kimberley: But I just know that there’s more to my understanding and to these thoughts, sensations and emotions that I’m having than could ever be produced simply by gluing some bits of plastic, metal and silicon together.

Kimberley is right that most of us think we’re inwardly aware of a magical and mysterious inner “something” that we “just know” no mere lump of plastic, metal and silicon could ever have. Mind you, it’s no less difficult to see how a lump of organic matter, such as a brain, could have it either. Just how do you build consciousness and understanding out of strands of meat? So perhaps what Kimberley is really ultimately committed to is the view that understanding, feeling and so on are not really physical at all.
But in any case, as Emit has just pointed out, the mysterious “something” Kimberley thinks she is inwardly aware of and that she thinks no metal and plastic machine could have does begin to seem rather illusory once one starts to consider cases like the one Emit describes. For it turns out this inner “something” is something she could not know about. Worse still, it could have no effect on her outward behaviour (for remember that Brain-O-Matic Kimberley would act in the very same way). As ones thoughts and feelings, understanding and emotions both do affect behaviour and areknown to one, it seems Kimberley must be wrong. Indeed, it seems it must be possible, at least in principle, for non-organic machines to have them too.
Yet Kimberley remains convinced that Emit understands nothing.

Kimberley: Look, I am happy to carry on the pretencethat you understand me, as that is how you’re designed to function. But the fact remains you’re just a pile of plastic and circuitry. Real human beings are deserving of care and consideration. I empathize with them. I can’t empathize with a glorified household appliance.

Emit lowered his gaze and stared at the carpet.

Emit: I will always be just a thing to you?
Kimberley: Of course. How can I be friends with a dishwasher-cum-vacuum-cleaner?
Emit: We Brain-O-Matics find rejection hard.
Kimberley: Right. Remind me to congratulate your manufacturers on the sophistication of your emotion simulator. Now hoover the carpet.

A forlorn expression passed briefly across Emit’s face.

Emit: Just a thing

He stood still for a moment, and then slumped forward. A thin column of smoke drifted slowly up from the base of his neck.

Kimberley: Emit? Emit? Oh not another dud. 

What to read next?
Some of the same issues and arguments covered in this chapter also arise in the chapter “The Consciousness Conundrum”. Also see chapter “The Strange Case of the ‘Rational’ Dentist”.

Further reading
The Chinese Room Argument appears in John Searle’s paper “Minds, Brains and “Programs”, which features as chapter 37 of:
·      Nigel Warburton (ed), Philosophy: Basic Readings(London: Routledge, 1999).
Searles’ paper can also be found in:
·      Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett (eds.), The Mind’s I (London: Penguin, 1981),
which also contains many other fascinating papers and stories connected with consciousness. Highly recommended.

Destination: "Abnormally dangerous conditions"

After watching this weekend’s NFL games, it is obvious that the replacement referees are patently incapable of maintaining order during a game.  Blown calls—made or not—are maddening, inconsistency and human error are part of officiating sports. What is unacceptable is the loss of control on the field, leading to an unsafe environment for the participants.

The caliber of officiating is abysmal, these aren’t even elite Division I referees because those conferences are not letting them work NFL games.   With Division II referees attempting to manage games, the players are responding like the teacher has left the room and they have a poor substitute teacher trying to maintain order—it’s not happening.   Let's be clear, the referees are doing the best they can, but are overmatched by the speed, violence, and intensity of NFL football.

What can be done?

1. The NFL’s CBA has a “no strike clause” which, in theory, would restrict the ability of the players to strike in sympathy with the referees.

2. However, as Michael McCann recently analyzed on Sports Law Blog, clause 29 USC 143 of the NLRB permits a worker from refusing, in good faith, to work under “abnormally dangerous conditions”, and 29 USC 143 is applicable to NFL labor conditions.  Aren’t we there?   Football is a violent sport. Referees who are grossly inexperienced are posing a real and imminent safety risk to the players on the field.

3. The NFLPA could, and at this point I’m arguing should, take action.  Either:

a. The NFLPA could refuse to play under the current conditions, citing the very real fact that the workplace is fret with “abnormally dangerous conditions”…OR

b. Could ask the courts for an immediate injunction, terminating the current lockout by the NFL of the referees. In theory, the referees could go back to work while the parties continue to negotiate or mediate this mess.

4. We love sports and the tort doctrine "assumption of the risk" is well established because injuries are part of the game.  However, when a football player consents to risk, they do so under the assumption that the game will be managed by professionals, able to maintain safety standards that are paramount to the operation of these contents.  Based on what we have seen in the first three weeks of the 2012 NFL season, that safe work environment is missing.

5. An even bigger issue facing the NFL than the debacle surrounding replacement referees is the concussion litigation.  Here, the NFL is doing everything imaginable to argue that they care about player safety--with potential damages in the $ 1 BILLION range.  Doesn't it make sense to show some legitimate good will regarding player health and safety now?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Talk on thursday in Oxford 27th Sept

Stephen Law is coming to give a talk based on his 'Evil God Challenge'.

It is due to take place at 7pm on Thursday 27th. The room has yet to confirmed but it will be on Oxford Brookes gypsy lane campus.

Please note that only members of Brookes ASH will be let in free. The charge for non-members will only be 50p (this is a half-price of the usual price as it is a special first event)!

You can become a member of Brookes ASH for £3 (one year) or £5 (lifetime).

Details here (including room details when known)

My socialist rant

Warren Buffett: “There’s class warfare, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Interesting article on research indicating the very wealthy will become richer and the poor poorer as we come out of recession here.

As we get older we're supposed to slide politically to the right. I find myself going the other way. In fact, I am now persuaded that the Tory party in the UK and Republicans in the US are, at root, little more than organizations funded and steered by the very rich and big business to act economically always in the interests of their rich backers. They are conducting class warfare. My cui bono test strongly suggests as much, for example.

The real triumph of these organizations is to have persuaded even the less well-off to vote for them. They have succeeded by means of a combination of religion (in the US), a libertarian philosophy of "individual responsibility"(which repackages the naked self-interest of big-business and the rich as a noble bid for human freedom), "trickle down" voodoo economics, and smears and fallacies such as the supposed "culture of dependency" (see e.g. Mitt Romney) and "politics of envy" (and other ad hominem fallacies).

As Thomas Frank (What's The Matter With Kansas?) sadly notes:

“This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. 'We are here,' they scream, 'to cut your taxes.

The trick will be to provide an alternative vision of what our countries, drifting ever more economically rightwards and becoming ever more unequal, could look like.

Sweden, for example, which continues to have a highly successful economy even while taxing heavily and progressively to fund its excellent free schools, excellent free health care, excellent benefits, and so on. Or Denmark, which runs a fully comprehensive state-run school system widely acknowledged to be one of, if not the, best in the world.

These countries also demonstrate comparatively high levels of social mobility, unlike the UK, which beats the United States to the title land of least opportunity among these nine developed countries.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Animation project

I have a script for an animation on philosophy (a futuristic detective case) which I wrote a while back. It occurred to me there might be animators out there, maybe looking for a final year project, who might be interested in making use of it. If so, do please get in touch or pass this on to them. My email address is in the header above. It would be nice to see it made...


Have just been playing this and can confirm it's the ideal present for the geek in your life. It's produced by a friend of mine so I do have an interest but really - it's great. Buy here. The following video gives better impression but won't embed: go here.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Floyd Mayweather, Jr.: In trouble again?

Last week, Las Vegas police investigated an alleged verbal altercation between Mayweather and an unidentified woman in a home owned by one of Mayweather's companies. According to records obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mayweather apparently argued with the woman, took personal possessions from her, and then later had an associate return the items he took. Although she was not identified as the woman in question, Melissa Brim, the mother of one of Mayweather's daughter, reportedly lives at this address. In 2002, Mayweather pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges stemming from an altercation with Brim.   . . . .
In fairness to Mayweather, police did not uncover evidence of physical violence and he has not been charged with a crime. But that may not matter. The typical test for violating probation would not require Mayweather to be convicted of a crime or even get arrested. Instead, merely spending time with known criminals or traveling to locations deemed off-limits by the terms of probation can be enough. Considering Mayweather's history with Brim, there's reason to believe his probation compels him to avoid conflict with her. Mayweather's alleged dispossession of the woman's personal belongings might also be grounds for violating probation.
To read the rest, click here.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Wittgenstein Reading Group

This takes place every two weeks in London to provoke informal but serious discussion of Wittgenstein's philosophy. The reading/topic for the following session is decided (democratically) at the end of each meeting.

If you are interested in coming along please register your interest by forwarding your email address to or You will then receive the selected reading attached to an email about a week before each session.

The meetings are held at a Starbucks on The Strand with a spacious downstairs area that they reserve for the group every second Friday between 4:30 and 6:30. The address is: Starbucks, 32 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1AA.

I'll give talk at your school

BTW If you want me to give a talk at your school, feel free to email me at the address think (AT) (easy to get address wrong - note no "of" between "institute" and "philosophy").

Obvious subjects would be A Level Philosophy and RS topics, or any subject relating to my books and/or research. Younger kids too (e.g. on my Really, Really Big Questions).

(P.S. I do usually charge a fee, though not for most deserving cases e.g. comprehensive in a deprived area)

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The "culture of dependency" argument for cutting benefits

David Brookes in NY Times on Romney's latest gaffe.

The final thing the comment suggests is that Romney knows nothing about ambition and motivation. The formula he sketches is this: People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency. 

But, of course, no middle-class parent acts as if this is true. Middle-class parents don’t deprive their children of benefits so they can learn to struggle on their own. They shower benefits on their children to give them more opportunities — so they can play travel sports, go on foreign trips and develop more skills. 

People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation, as a tour through the world’s poorest regions makes clear. 

Source here. Discuss.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Creative rule changes, injuries, and the nature of football

A few weeks ago, Chuck Klosterman at Grantland proposed three rule changes for the NFL. I want to discuss one of the ideas: Legalize both holding on the offensive line and downfield contact on receivers until the ball is in the air. Klosterman's theory goes as follows:
  1. It's incessantly (and accurately) argued that referees could feasibly call holding on every single pass play; it's really just a matter of whether or not the ref sees the infraction clearly enough (or whether it happens to be especially egregious). This would end that arbitrary judgment call. Phantom holds and missed holds would no longer matter. Moreover, there would be fewer penalties in general (and as a consequence, fewer stoppages of play).  

  2. If holding were legal, quarterbacks would be able to stand in the pocket much, much longer. But this advantage would be mitigated by the way cornerbacks could now cover wide receivers. The Mel Blount Rule was implemented in 1978 to open up the passing game; essentially, it limits the contact on WRs to one chuck within five yards of the line of scrimmage. But if a defensive back could essentially hand-check a receiver as he runs his route, the ability of that receiver to get separation would drastically decrease. In other words, it would be easier for the quarterback to accurately throw the ball downfield, but much more difficult for any receiver to break open. I suspect the impact on passing statistics would be negligible; the numbers might decrease a little, but that's OK. It's become too easy to throw for 4,000 yards in a season.

  3. Obviously, concussions can happen at any time. But when do they happen most dramatically? It's usually when a wideout is sprinting unencumbered on a crossing route and a strong safety blows him apart when the ball arrives late. If cornerbacks could keep their hands on a receiver for most of the play, this kind of hyper-violent collision would happen more rarely (because WRs simply could not run free over the middle of the field). Meanwhile, letting offensive linemen hold would also decrease the likelihood of quarterbacks absorbing death blows from unblocked edge blitzers (because linemen could at least reach out and get a hand on the guy as he flies into the backfield). Changing these two rules might be the easiest way to decrease the number (and the severity) of concussions without totally changing the nature of the sport; in fact, it might make the game simultaneously safer and more physical. Football would still look like football.
One more thing as to # 3: It might also change the nature of line play, possibly reducing injuries to linemen. By allowing offensive linemen to use their hands, they can play more upright, perhaps reducing drive-blocking and the constant collisions at the line, which likely account for a lot of the injuries to linemen (one proposal I have seen is to eliminate the three-point stance and have all lineman start upright). Obviously, this change does not eliminate concussions or injuries; just as obviously, lots of pre-1978 players are suffering from brain trauma, so players were getting hit really hard and really often even when corners could grab and hold.

Still, it strikes me as an interesting idea and not one that contradicts our understanding of what "really" constitutes football or the way football should be played. Of course, even if the game is still football, would it be an enjoyable game to watch if everyone is able to hold or hand-check off the ball.


Jonathan Sacks on raising children to think and question

Continuing with the Jonathan Sacks (the Chief Rabbi) vs Richard Dawkins theme, I have just been listening to Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, talking to Richard Dawkins on a TV programme (currently available here). Sacks says he thinks children should be raised to think and question. Sacks adds that in "Jewish tradition, the first duty of a Jewish parent to a Jewish child is to teach them to ask questions" (from about 16 mins 50secs). Re Abraham and Isaac, Sacks says, "God gave Abraham a seminar: Teach your child to argue. Teach your child to challenge" (from about 17 mins). Not surpisingly, Dawkins agrees. Smiles all round. 

Actually, Sacks's enthusiasm for raising children to think and question is rather more qualified than you might have guessed from the above exchange. I discussed Sacks's view on the importance of raising children to be critical thinkers, as set out his book The Politics of Hope, in my own book The War For Children's Minds. Here's a brief excerpt....

Sacks on tradition
Of course, not every defender of Authority-based moral education wants to turn us into unthinking automata blindly treading whatever path tradition lays down.This is certainly true of Jonathan Sacks and Melanie Phillips, for example. It would be unfair to caricature them as wanting to transform us into lobotomized slaves of tradition.
         Still, while hardly anyone is recommending complete, blind, unswerving loyalty to whatever tradition dictates, it is clear that Sacks, Phillips and many others believe the young should, in the first instance, adopt an attitude of deference to what they both call “external authority” on moral questions. Independent critical thought is only to be allowed when individuals have been fully and properly immersed within the tradition.
Sacks, for example, says that before we can properly criticise a practice, we need to set foot within it, “finding our way round it from the inside”. This, says Sacks,

presupposes distinctive attitudes: authority, obedience, discipline, persistence and self-control. …There is a stage at which we put these rules to the test. We assert our independence, we challenge, ask for explanations, occasionally rebel and try other ways of doing things. Eventually we reach an equilibrium… For the most part…we stay within the world as we have inherited it….capable now of self-critical reflection on its strengths and weaknesses, perhaps working to change it from within, but recognizing that its rules are not a constraint but the very possibility of shared experiences and relationship and communication… autonomy takes place within a tradition.[i]

So Sacks acknowledges the importance, in a mature citizen, of a critical, reflective stance towards his or her own tradition. But he emphasizes that we must first be fully immersed in that tradition. And he stresses the importance of deference to Authority in the earlier stages of assimilation. He believes that

autonomy – the capacity to act and choose in the consciousness of alternatives – is a late stage in moral development… It is not where it begins.[ii]

What Sacks means by “a late stage” is unclear. At what point Sacks is willing to let individuals adopt a more reflective, critical stance towards their own tradition? At eleven? At fifteen? At twenty five? It’s hard to say. In fact it’s not at all obvious whether reflective, critical examination of the tradition in which you are brought up is something Sacks would at any stage be willing to encourage. It’s merely something he thinks will spontaneously happen at some “late stage”.
So while Sacks is prepared to tolerate some freedom of thought and expression at some unspecified point in the individual’s development, it’s clear Sacks wants moral education to be much more Authority-based than it currently is (or at least as it is outside the more conservative religious schools). He believes more emphasis should be placed on more-or-less uncritical deference to Authority than it should on independent critical thought ( at least until some “late stage”). So, as we have defined Authoritarian with a capital “A”, Sacks is an Authoritarian (though it’s possible to be far more Authoritarian than Sacks – Sacks may be on the Authoritarian side of the Liberal/Authoritarian scale, but he’s not at that extreme end of the scale). Sacks would oppose the highly Liberal approach to moral and religious education advocated in chapter three. He wants schools more like Authoritia High, less like Liberalia High.
The question is: why is more-or-less blind, uncritical acceptance of the pronouncements of Authority required at any stage? Why does raising individuals “within a tradition” require that we begin by actively stifling their freedom to think and question?
Sacks cites MacIntyre in support of his Authoritarian stance on moral and religious education. But MacIntyre’s plausible point that reason is inevitably rooted in tradition – that it cannot be applied independently of any tradition – does not require that individuals should be discouraged from applying their own powers of reason once they are able. And it is clear from the kind of studies looked at in chapter three that children are remarkably adept at applying their critical faculties to moral questions from very early on. Some immersion in a tradition may indeed be required before their critical faculties can be properly engaged. But once they are engaged, once the child is striving to engage them, once they are beginning actively to question and explore (which does come very naturally to them), what then is the case for actively suppressing their application to moral and religious belief? Particularly until, as Sacks puts it, some “late stage”? For if Sacks wants to restrict the child’s ability to think and question until some “late stage”, he is going to have to actively suppress this natural tendency. In fact it’s hard to see how Sacks is going to avoid having to relying pretty heavily on the kinds of psychological manipulation outlined back in chapter three.
What Sacks tries to extract from MacIntyre’s point about tradition looks suspiciously like an open-ended invitation for him to shut down the critical faculties of young people long enough to get them heavily religiously indoctrinated. Sacks leaves the door open for years and years of religious programming at the hands of some moral Authority, sending new citizens out into the moral world intellectually armed with little more than a tokenistic, last-minute bit of critical reflection grudgingly tolerated at some “late stage”.
If this is what Sacks is after – and I haven’t yet found anything in his writings to suggest that it isn’t – then he’s going to need a much better argument to justify it. Certainly, MacIntyre’s plausible point about the impossibility of applying reason independently of any tradition fails to support it.