Thursday, October 28, 2010

On marking

Am I the only person who habitually emphasises to all their students the importance of presentation?  So often people seem to halfarsedly cobble together an argument, and hastily pretend to format, proof read and cite it.  These things are important.  They cannot, of course, make up for a lack of content or failures of argument, but they can mitigate them to some degree.  Alternatively, when a well presented work is presented in conjunction with good content and arguments, the work as a whole is likely to be better received than will a shabbily presented one.

I also see a strong positive correlation between those who worry about their presentation and those who have otherwise done well in content and argument.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

US Politics, again.

Or should I say, 'batshit-insane things just keep on happening over there'?  Because despite my best intentions of actually trying to talk about something other than the giant mess that is the US midterms, things keep catching my attention.  This time, it was the by now widely publicised video (On TPM)that was taken of a group of Rand Paul supporters curb-stomping (thankfully without the efficiency displayed in American History X (and if you do not know what curb-stomping is, you probably don't want to find out)) a female moveOn supporter.  Amanda Marcotte has it about right in her comments here, which basically amount to 'WTF, these people are pure evil.'

From the outside, it isn't as though I agree with the Democrats about much at all, but given the choice between them and the trigger happy racist, misogynistic bigots who seem to infest the republican party... it isn't really a choice, and active support of the US democratic party, despite their problems, seems almost morally obligatory.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is there any remotely plausible argument for discrimination against LGBTs?

I think not, and the rhetoric in the US constantly astounds me on this point.  Really, it shouldn't be at all a contentious issue, and that it is speaks volumes about the state of US society.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The difficulty of sustainable transport

With great fanfare, and PR friendly announcements about environmental sustainability, Monash University announced the construction of a Bike arrival station that would enable bicyclists to shower, secure their bikes, and generally make themselves presentable after the bike ride to Clayton, which is far too far from Melbourne proper.  Upon completion of the facility, the available places were snapped up within a day, and after receiving 500 registrations (in under a couple of days) for the 100 spots, a waiting list was created, on which the vast majority of those who want to use this facility, are now placed.

Let us think for a while about what it would actually take for Monash to fulfill the promise of sustainable access.  Obviously, many times the number of bicycle spots provided by this new facility.  Further, there is no train line to Clayton, and people are much more willing to train than to bus (not sure why, but I am in complete agreement).  Incentivising the use of public transport, and incentivising even more the use of bicycles would also help.  But ultimately, I do not think there is much that the university can do by itself, as despite being a large employer, it doesn't have the clout to change the policy focus on car use.  That is what needs to be addressed.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Friendship: Physical and Virtual

Some musings on a semi-formed idea for a paper:

The idea that there is something fundamental that distinguishes traditional modes of interaction from their newer, technologically mediated counterparts is widespread.  I am not sure that it is defensible.  In the context of friendship, the idea seems to be that something is missing from online 'friendships', which is present in non-technologically mediated friendships, and that something constitutes the necessary core of what it means to have a 'real' friendship.  Accordingly, friendship is something that cannot be established without the (intimacy?  proximity? something) of meatspace interaction.

This seems to be rubbish.  Here is why:  For any claimed feature of meatspace friendships, that is said to be shared by all of them and lacking in all virtual 'friendships', there seem to be actual, as opposed to merely hypothetical counterexamples.  At this stage, this point is not fully cashed out, and I think maybe I could come up with a rule that avois all the traipsing through particulars, but for now, some examples.

I have good real world friends who I haven't seen in years.  Some of these I also seldom catch up with in virtual worlds.  From the opposite perspective, I have friends I have never met, with whom I spend far more time than I do with any but the closest of my meatspace friends.  We inhabit a shared, persistent virtual world multiple times a week, for hours at a time. 

Virtual friendships are not anonymous.  The closer ones are mediated through mechanisms like ventrilo and skype, and forged through shared experiences in the way of physical friendships.  Similarly, the opportunities for deception, mistrust, and the undermining of friendships exist as much virtually as they do physically. 

I also think there is an ambiguity played on betweens enses of the word friend.  In the strong sense, it means more than mere acquaintance.  It means someone whose absence you would genuinely notice and care about.  In the weak sense, it just indicates that you have some passing knowledge of a person.  The weak sense is popularised by online social media, and used by various reports on online friendship as synonymous with the strong sense in the physical realm.  I think there needs to be a recognition that both virtually and physically, each of these sense of the term friend is operating.  As long as you compare strong virtual to strong physical friendships, the similarities outweigh the differences.  Differences are peripheral to the concept of friendship, while the similarities attach to the core characteristics.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Posting will be scarce for this week and into the middle of next, as I am out of the country. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

US Mid-Term Elections

Despite the occasional crazy candidate put forward by the Republican party this election cycle (the first of those links is Christine O'Donnell, nutbag and senate candidate, the second is Rich Iott, Nazi re-enactor and house candidate), the Republican party is still looking as though it has a reasonable chance of taking over both houses in the US.  Good analysis of this possibility (the best, that I have found) is at 538, where the current predictions show the Republicans taking the house comfortably and cutting the Democratic senate majority to one. 

The question I have is what exactly fuels the people who vote for the Republican party?  From outside the US, the hot button issues on which the American right is getting agitated and involved, are all crazy person issues that simply aren't taken seriously (at least not in US form) in any other reasonably functioning liberal democracy. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

How hard is it to eat well?

And is the failure to do so a condemnable offense? 

This is quite closely connected to the previous post on fat activism, in particular the worry that a large part of what drives nutritional problems is not a lack of willpower regarding eating habits, but some combination of a lack of knowledge, affordability or access to nutritious foods.

If a lack of will power is the cause of things like overeating, then the inclination is to say that this is a (moral?) failing, and that the person who makes it should be amenable to criticisms.  If, on the other hand, one of the three other fialures identified above is the primary cause (or if some combination of those failures is the primary cause), then the blame seems to lie elsewhere.  Let us consider them in turn.


What do you need to know in order to eat healthily?  At the most basic level, something like the energy in/energy out equation seems fundamental.  If you consume more calories than you expend, you will gain weight, if you consume less, you will lose weight.  But for this information to be useful, you need to know what foods have what calories.  This isn't so hard for packaged foods, as most are required to have that information present.  It is more difficult for grains, fruits, vegetables and other foods that do not come prepackaged.  There is likely, I think, to be a knowledge gap here.  Further, there is at least a concern that nutritional information guidelines do not adequate state servings per package.  A chocolate bar marketed for an individual may contain multiple 'servings', leading the consumer to underestimate their calories consumed when they eat the whole thing.

The other half of the equation is more difficult again.  To know how much you need to consume, you need an idea of how much you expend.  This varies according to a range of factors, including the weight and body composition of a person and the extent of their physical activity.  Guidelines are available, but provide at best ballpark figures.

Would this knowledge suffice?  No.  In addition to knowing the above, some more nuanced nutritional knowledge is required.  What nutrients do we need, and in what proportions?  How much fat, protein, carbohydrate ought I to consume, and when is it best to consume these?  Does when I eat things matter?  Big meals or small?  Should I eat when hungry, or wait for set mealtimes?  You might think that these are unknowable, or that in order to eat well enough, this knowledge isn't necessary.  But having the knowledge would at least positively correlate with eating more healthily.

A connected issue with knowledge is knowledge of preparation.  Cooking is not something that everyone is comfortable doing.  Some people are bad at it, others dislike it, and still more have never tried.  If you do not know how to cook, then it becomes more difficult to eat healthily, as your options are reduced to buying prepackaged or preparation free foods, or eating out.  In each of these alternatives, your control over your calorie and nutritional intake is reduced by comparison to preparing food yourself.


This is probably an easier criterion to analyse.  In order to eat well, you need to be able to afford to purchase good food.  Often, good food is expensive.  It may be cheaper to eat takeaways than to buy and prepare a nutritious meal.  In particular, good vegetables and fruits can be expensive, and they do not last as long as packaged foods.

In addition, a component of affordability is time.  If you have the income to buy healthy food without the time to prepare it, then the income you have does not assist.  Similarly, anyone with a heavy workload needs to make time to cook, which can be difficult.


I live in Melbourne.  It is easy for me to access good, cheap fresh food.  I also have the time to shop at markets rather than supermarkets, which reduces my food cost considerably.  Not everyone has this luxury.  A problem particularly prevalent in the US, but not, I am sure, exclusive to that country, is the issue of food deserts, areas in which access to fresh and healthy foods is severely limited.  This problem is exacerbated by the issue of transporting large amounts of food for those who do not own a car.  (Again, being childless and living only with my partner means that transporting days worth of food for 2 on a bicycle is possible, in a way that buying for a family would not be).  So there is at least reason to think that some people would legitimately not have access to the food they require to eat healthily.


As it turns out, I think that someone like myself has probably the least excuse for poor eating habits.  I have the requisite knowledge, the income, the time, and the access to healthy food, which means I have only myself to blame for failing to take advantage of this.  People who lack any of these identified features would, I think, be absolved from blame in proportion to their lack.

Is this conclusion going to be useful?  Well, it could help shape public policy.  If we want to reduce the health concerns arising from poor nutrition, in particular, the increasing numbers of overweight and obese people in society, then good education, affordability for healthy foods, and increased access to them are all policy goals worth pursuing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fat Activism

This is an issue which concerns me, brought to mind most recently by this (ABA) article concerning a suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission on behalf of the estate of a deceased obese woman.  The claim is that she was fired on grounds of obesity, and it seems to want  obesity to be or become a protected grounds of discrimination, or recognised as a disability.

The reason this concerns me is that i'm very conflicted by the issue.  On the one hand, there is clearly an ongoing cultural and societal disapproval of even moderate excess weight, which is exacerbated in the case of the obese.  This disapproval is not accountable for on terms of things like health concerns, but rather seems to be prejudice.  So this is bad and we should try to consider ways to eliminate it.

On the other hand, attempts to do things like getting obesity recognised as a disability, or as a grounds on which employers cannot legitimately discriminate, seems to be pushing too far in the other direction.  There are significant and ongoing physical and psychological health concerns with being overweight, which are unlikely to be assisted by vindication (probably the wrong word in this context) of one's overweight status through  classification as a disability.

Part of the difficulty is that there are such a wide range of factors pushing people to become overweight and to stay that way.  The diversity of the causes makes it hard to differentiate between those who are strongly genetically predisposed to weight gain, those who gain weight in resposne to things like medication, and those who simply systematically make harmful lifestyle choices leading to weight gain.  The latter seem justifiably criticisable in ways the former two do not, but how do we tell the circumstances of any particular individual?

Further, how do we tell when being overweight is actually unhealthy.  At the high end of the overweight scale (obesity and morbid obesity) it is clearly unhealthy, and very much so, but being moderately overweight is far less determinately linked to health concerns.  Can we simply scale our criticism to the size of the person being criticised?  A corrolary to this is that thinness is often taken as evidence of health, which obscures the fact that people of average weight can be as unhealthy as the overweight, and it may be even more difficult for them as it is not visibly diagnosable.  Think of people who (at least claim to) guzzle junk food without putting on weight.  They may well be severely lacking in micronutrients, have a terrible fat/muscle ratio, without displaying this through weight alone.  Then there is the inadequacy of BMI as a measure of health.  This is, at least, a procedural point.  People need to stop pretending BMI is useful in determining the health of an individual.  It gives you a good idea of the state of society as a whole, but on the individual level, it tells you nothing useful.  An example:  It doesn't differentiate between the significantly overweight non-exerciser and the muscular athlete, as it measures each in a ratio of weight to height, without regard for composition.

It seems to me that what is needed is a clear delineation between harmful prejudice and helpful concern.  I am not, however, sure that there is such a distinction available, let alone that it has successfully been made.  There is much to think about with this, and I would love to get a clearer idea of the state of the debate.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Opening Ceremony...

So the commonwealth games have overcome their initial stumbles and have, at least, opened without any further problems.  I do still worry that the whole child labour thing has vanished without a trace now that the pretty spectacle appears to be coming together, though.