Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Of ESP and cars

Today a message on my car's dashboard read: "ESP not available".

Is this the conclusion my car has reached after some deep thinking? Is it an informative "thought for the day" from those cheeky scamps at Fiat? Or was it a poor error / feedback message that a) failed to fully exploit the display resources available to it and b) failed to give me an informative message which I could use to develop a practical course of action?

This isn't quite as bad as the obscure orange warning light that appeared on my previous car (a Vauxhall). Upon seeing the orange light I reasoned thusly: my car sometimes shows me red lights, orange lights, and green lights. I know that red lights are bad and green lights are good, or at least not bad. Red lights in my car are things I should action promptly to ensure continued safe driving, they include the "the handbrake is on, you shouldn't be trying to drive" light. Green lights inform me of the status of my car, but are things that might be beneficial. Examples include the lights that tell me my indicators are on. Orange lights, following all of my cultural and highway conditioning, must be something between red and green lights. They are important things I need to be aware of, but do not need to action immediately. My conceptual model did not match the design/feedback model, and five mails later the engine 'head' cracked and my car came to a slow, steam producing, halt.

In hindsight I should have tried to get the car company to provide recompense, or to offer me a job so that I could help them to make better products. In the meantime my current car may think that under normal operating conditions it has some form of extra sensory perception (ESP).

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Mac Mini vs Windows.... Windows Mini?

I really like my Mac Mini, and I've been enjoying playing with an unfamiliar operating system. A few months on, now that I have more time, I've been swapping back to the PC a lot because of a number of tools that I have on that machine that I don't have on the Mac, and to play games. The PC wins hands down on the gaming front compared to the Mac, though the Mac has come a long way in recent years.

But I'm beginning to think that it's only the hardware that I really like about my Mac Mini. Sure Lion has a lot of neat features, a great deal to commend it, but it can't completely replace Windows for me. The Office sweet, again whilst having some neat features, really does seem to be lagging behind Microsoft Office.

The future might be dual booting the mini and mainly using it as a Windows box..

Religious affiliation on the wane in the UK

Retention rates for religious affiliation in the UK, source: British Attitudes Survey 28

The latest British Attitudes Survey report was released this month and makes for interesting reading. Amongst the noteworthy points are the continuing decline of religiosity in the UK. Fifty percent of those polled did not consider themselves to be religious, and only 14% regularly attend religious worship. The figure for non-believers is likely to be higher than the 50%, because various surveys seem to indicate that people affiliate with a religious tradition even when they are not a believer. (In Holland for example, 1 in 6 of the clergy in the mainstream protestant church are reported to be non-believers).

The graph shows the success rates of various religious affiliations at retaining people within their worldview. The Nones are in the lead with only 6% of those raised without religion becoming one of the faithful, whereas taken collectively the conversion rate to a 'none' is 40% amongst those raised within a religious tradition. The remaining 60% is entirely 'loyal' to their parental affiliation, with a certain degree of trading between religious traditions.

The numbers are set to swing further in favour of the Nones. Only around 25% of the oldest generation are unaffiliated with a religion, whereas for the youngest (adult) generation 65% of them do not affiliate with a religion. The survey's author indicates that the data doesn't show an age effect, rather a 'cohort' effect. Younger generations are less religious and they're not likely to become more religious as they get older.

If we're not a post Christian society yet, we will be in a generation or two. Which makes it all the more remarkable that we retain such oddities as reserved seats in the House of Lords for Bishops, and the government's enthusiasm to segregate children during their education based on their (or their parents') religion.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Barry on the inhumane slaughter of animals to meet religious requirements

In the news this week: moves in the Dutch parliament to ban the slaughter of unstunned animals (BBC discussion article).

A brief synopsis of the issue:

  1. Slaughtering animals without stunning / rendering them unconscious beforehand is increasingly considered to be inhumane, and there is a growing move in many countries to ban the practice.
  2. This is in conflict with Jewish and Muslim religious doctrine. Their counter arguments are roughly a) such laws inhibit their religious freedom, and b) their way is just as / more humane than the other proposed methods.
And a side issue that often goes unremarked: in the West there is a growing distaste of 'ritual slaughter' and a growing desire to use methods that are considered more humane. Where ritual slaughter is allowed it can be considered to be allowed on an exception basis, i.e. "we don't like this, but we realise that slaughtering animals in this way is important to some segments of our population". A problem however is that because according to at least one religious doctrine not all of the animal is fit for consumption, so the rest of it finds its way into the 'mainstream food supply chain' in order (allegedly) to make the practice economically viable. This means that people who are against the practice of religious slaughter are financially supporting said practices. There have been moves at the EU level for meat not slaughtered to a standard considered humane by the mainstream to be labelled as such so that it can be identified by the discerning shopper. Apparently such moves have been resisted on the grounds that it would inhibit religious freedom. It is not clear why this should weigh more than the freedom of others to choose not to support practices that they consider inhumane.

Anyway, on with Brian Barry and what he had to say on the matter (p45):

"...we must insist on the crucial difference between a denial of equal opportunities to some group [..] and a choice some people make out of that from a set of equal opportunities [..] as a result of certain beliefs. [...] We all constantly impose restrictions on ourselves in choosing among the options that are legally available to us according to our beliefs about what is right, polite, decent, prudent, professionally appropriate, and so on."
and (p45),
"Assuming that killing animals without prior stunning falls below the prevailing standards for the humane treatment of animals, the point is that those who are not prepared to eat meat from animals killed in any other way cannot eat meat without violating these minimum standards. It is not the law but the facts (assuming the facts bear it out) of neurophysiology that make this so. The law may condone the additional suffering of animals killed without prior stunning, but if it does we should be clear that what it is doing is accommodating the tastes of a subset of carnivores, not observing the demands of religious freedom."
"Consider, for example, the way in which people's beliefs may make some job opportunities unattractive to them. Pacifists will presumably regard a career in the military as closed to them. Committed vegetarians are likely to feel the same about jobs in slaughterhouses or butcher's shops. Similarly, if legislation requires that animals should be stunned before being killed, those who cannot as a result of their religious beliefs eat such meat will have to give up eating meat altogether."
From Barry (2001). Culture and Equality. Polity Press.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

On equal respect to cultures and ways of life

On liberals (allegedly) having to give equal respect to cultures because liberals are committed to equal respect for persons:

"The obvious problem with this argument is that illiberal cultures typically—I am tempted to say necessarily—are committed to violating the cannons of equal respect. Equal respect for people cannot therefore entail respect for their cultures when these cultures systematically give priority to, say, the interests of men over the interests of women."
- Brian Barry (2001). Culture & Equality. Polity Press. p127 

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Quick info-blast

Nothing insightful here, just some quick musings:

iPhone 4s
  • It's the iPhone, but a bit more iPhoney, no real surprises here;
  • The battery life is pretty poor. It needs a near daily charge, and that's with me having it switched off for a big chunk of the day, and;
  • I've swapped providers and it turns out that Vodafone don't support visual voicemail. I feel like I'm living in the voicemail-90s. Come back O2, all is forgiven. Apart from you not giving me as a good deal that is.
Mac mini

I'm very happy with my Mac mini, but I think maybe I'm a bit more happy with the hardware; it being all small and shiny and quiet and all. I'm pondering sticking Windows on it, though I do feel because I've been so busy lately (not even had a chance to look at coding on it yet) that I've not had enough time to tinker around with Mac OSX and investigate various applications.

Swapping between different shortcut keys for work and home was driving me bonkers. I've remapped the keys so that Ctrl is now the Apple key (or whatever).

Started (re)learning coding in Python for work, and getting back into the swing of it.

End of transmission.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Some things not to do when collecting survey information

The following are some quick tips on what not to do when surveying your customers when they phone your customer service department.

1. If your customers are asked to take part in the survey before they get to speak to anyone, do not tell your customer service staff whether the person they're talking to is going to be taking part in the survey or not. Oddly enough, such an approach may bias the results of your survey.

2. Try to be consistent with the mapping between rating scales and the action required from your users/customers. Swapping between 1 means yes and 2 means no on the keypad, to a rating scale of 1 to 7 where 1 is the worst possible response is not a good idea. The button that your users push may not correspond to the rating that they actually wish to give.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Turn it up to 11

BBC online media player services have a whimsical touch; the volume can be turned up to eleven. Professionally delivered user experiences don't have to be bland or humourless.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Study skills

Writing a summary of discussion of a paper is for me a very effective study skill, making me engage with the material and having to think about it in detail. It also requires me to reexamine a text, particularly focusing on what I considered to be important during the first read through. It also provides me with ready made notes and reminders for when I need to draw on the material again.

I've fallen off the wagon over the past few weeks due to various factors. I've found my previous blog posts to be hugely helpful for my current essay, so once the current coursework crunch is out of the way I intend to be more disciplined in making a post covering a paper I have just read.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Blackmail from the liberal democrats?

This seems a bit strange. Nadine Dorries, following losing a vote in the House of Commons, has this to say on her blog:
"...the difficult situation we had been put in by the Liberal Democrats. Some obviously disagreed, but politics yesterday was certainly at its dirtiest and most complex. I would never have thought that the Liberal Democrats would have applied so much pressure..."
The BBC sheds some light on what this dirty politics might be:

"[Dorries] blamed Deputy PM Nick Clegg for Mr Cameron's coolness towards her amendment - claiming he had "blackmailed" the prime minister by saying that Lib Dem MPs would not vote for the health bill if her amendment was carried."
So, the Liberal Democrats are against a proposed amendment to a bill to the extent that they're willing to (or threaten to) vote against the bill if the amendment is included. Whether you agree with them or not, this would seem to be a case of standing up for their principles. Perhaps Dorries complaint is that this, if it occurred, wasn't done publicly enough? (Though one would have thought it obvious that the LD would be against it). Either way, if this is dirty politics can we have more of it please? Consistent backing of principles in politics gets my vote.


A mildly interesting week for deliberative democracy in the UK. An attempt was made to change abortion laws, requiring that advice given to women considering abortion is provided by an 'independent' organisation, i.e. one that does not itself provide abortion services.

Much was made of the importance of the advice services being independent. Independence is one of those push button words, if something is independent it has to be positive, right? Well no, not really. What is wanted from an advice service is that it is impartial, objective, unbiased, informed, and that the advice is provided professionally and appropriately. Independence isn't something that is desirable in itself, though clearly by being independent there are potentially fewer constraints that might inhibit the provision of unbiased and impartial advice. It does not follow that an independent advice service will be better than a non-independent service. This complaint about the independence of the organisations is somewhat akin to complaining that your NHS doctor only wants you to take X / have procedure Y, because she wants to perpetuate the NHS.

Also of particular interest is that a broad sweep of public commentators seem to think that the MP behind the proposed changes is, despite her public statements to the contrary, generally against abortion. Certainly the MPs voting record suggests that she is very much against abortion in its current form; having previously voted to cut the time limit in half (by 12 weeks).

On the public reason front it is enlightening and disappointing to repeatedly see those in the anti-choice camp using rhetoric about murder and the like. This is either only a self-reinforcing flag to their own side, or a complete failure to engage with the subject matter. It certainly doesn't move forward or explore the (highly sensitive and emotional) topic in any way. The crux of the whole debate is whether an early termination counts as murder. This is the point that needs to be discussed and debated. Refusing to enter into reasoned public debate on the point of contention and levelling severe and emotive accusations at the other side isn't far removed from being on the playground and sticking your fingers in your ears.

Other worries on the public discourse front:

- The 'Right to Know' campaign doesn't seem to think that we have a right to know who is behind it
- Another of those buzz words 'choice' has been trotted out and dressed up in a frock this week. Choice is of course important, an important part of a liberal society and all that, but choice for the sake of choice isn't positive. Generally psychological studies find that a lot choice is not beneficial. And of course, if one has a serious ailment and has the option of getting it treated by qualified doctors, it isn't an improvement if one gains the choice of letting quacks have a crack at it.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

August's Reading

I've recently finished Dance with Dragons, the latest instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin. Quick summary: great book, long time coming.

Fantasy Flight Games' Deathwatch role playing book.

A bit lacklustre here, I am currently re-reading Apple's Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) for mobile devices.

I've just started on David McFarland's Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds. I'm also part way through Brian Barry's Equality and Culture, which is a great book and essential reading for anyone interested in multiculturalism. Barry is an entertaining read, with compelling arguments, clarity of writing, and less restraint than most to sticking in the intellectual boot when he disagrees with someone.

Goal attaining systems

I came across an interesting categorisation of goal attaining systems today:

  • Goal-achieving; a system that recognises when a goal state has been reached. This can be implicit. Examples include a doorbell buzzer, or flowers opening up in the sun.
  • Goal-seeking; a system that is such that it will move towards a goal state without any recognition that the goal is being worked towards. Examples include a marble spinning in a bowl, which will ultimately come to rest in the middle.
  • Goal-directed; a system that has a representation of the goal state and it's behaviour is intended to bring about. This is a system with feedback control. Examples include a thermostat, and human planning.
This is a useful set of categories that can be utilised in thinking of philosophical entities and systems, and for the design of software agents, applications, and robots. It came to me via David McFarland's Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Eberle and Pubic Justification

Eberle, C.J. Religion and Liberal Democracy in Simon's The Blackwell Guide to Social and Political Philosophy (2002).

Eberle discusses the role that religious beliefs should play in a liberal democracy, and whether the theist based solely on religious reasons is justified in supporting a law that coerces others. The introductory example that Eberle uses is one relating to laws that discriminate against homosexuals. Some portion of Christians (and it should be noted not exclusively Christians or even exclusively religious folk) are, broadly speaking, against homosexuality and a reason/justification for this is based on passages in the bible, e.g. Leviticus 18:22 "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." Eberle argues that theist citizens should attempt to put forward a public justification for laws (and such) that other citizens can accept, but if this fails they are fully justified in supporting laws that coerce others (e.g. to discriminate against homosexuals) if they hold this to be a moral course of action.

I disagree with the arguments presented in Religion and Liberal Democracy, and don't find the case made for justification for citizens to coerce others based on a position that has failed the test of public reason to be compelling. I shall attempt to argue for my position.

A possible mistake that Eberle makes is to identify religious belief as a special case. If one takes it as a specific instance of a more general case of citizens' strongly held beliefs and world views, then his arguments are weakened. There is no clear reason why a religious belief as a motivation for moral views and endorsing of laws should be considered separately from idealogical beliefs and the like (e.g. strong belief in the efficacy of certain alternative medicines, or adherents in conspiracy theories that lack any credibility).

The general argument from Eberle appears to be:

  1. A religious person has personal moral beliefs that influence support for coercive laws (our problematic set of cases)
  2. A subset of these are wholly based on their religious views, and therefore cannot be given as a publicly acceptable justification
  3. Coercive laws can only be supported if a citizen can give publicly acceptable justification
  4. Therefore, in cases where a religious person cannot provide public justification for a law, by requiring that they abstain from supporting that law we are making them act against their morals, which is wrong
The first response to this argument is to generalise it and consider all persons in the polity collectively; to apply the principle of equality to their beliefs and motivations. This gives us the general principle for which Eberle is making a case for a religious exemption: Laws that coerce others which cannot be given publicly acceptable justification should not be supported. This allows us to rule out support based on bigotry, delusions, fundamentalism, and the like. If we did not have this principle there would be no basis for dismissing unjustified laws, which would be extremely undesirable. Eberle argues that in the case of the theist this principle asks them to go against their morals. Even if true, Eberle doesn't make a case for why religious views deserve an exemption over and above, for example, idealogical views.

The case being made is that if something cannot be reasonably be justified, then it can still be supported even when it coerces other people if strong beliefs are held. I believe the correct response in such a situation is that if something cannot be reasonably publicly justified then the person in question should correct their views, or maintain them but accept that others have a different world view and should not be coerced.

Eberle provides the following example (p295) in support of his argument:

"...we may assume that, given the evidence available in his epistemic environment, Socrates rationally believed that the sun revolves around the earth; that, given the evidence available in our epistemic environment, we moderns rationally deny the sun revolves around the earth; and that, given the relevant differences between our respective epistemic environments, Socrates would have been unable to articulate a rational for his geocentric convictions that we moderns regard as even remotely convincing. In that hypothetical case, Socrates would enjoy a rational, but not a public, justification for his geocentric convictions. [The upshot being that we cannot expect Socrates to withdraw his support for his geocentric convictions]."
There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, Socrates is wrong. Secondly, we can understand Socrates position and his reasoning, and we can appreciate that Socrates is attempting to provide public justification, and given his current epistemic environment he may (perhaps should) succeed. That his view is wrong and will lose out does not diminish the key point that Socrates is successfully engaged in public reasoning. He is currently not adequately informed in comparison to moderns. Thirdly, we can engage with Socrates in public deliberation, we can attempt to convince him of our position based on our more expansive epistemic foundation, and we can reasonably expect Socrates to weigh the evidence and arguments and side with the heliocentric model due to its more compelling account of the solar system. Socrates is wrong. He should either change his views to heliocentrism because it is a superior view, or he should accept that his geocentric view is no longer sufficient as a public reason and he should not use it as a basis to coerce others.

A difference between the case that Eberle is making for a religious exemption and his example of Socrates is that Socrates is engaged in public reason, whilst the solely-religious justification is not. Eberle, in presenting the position of justificatory liberals put forwards the following conception:

"(5) rationale R counts as a public justification for coercive law L only if each cognitively adept, reasonable and adequately informed citizens affected by L can accept R as a sufficient basis for L."
I don't follow why only citizens affected by a coercive law can reject it, but leaving that aside this is an interesting case. Eberle's response to this is religious people consider their sacred texts to be relevant source of information for their reasons, and if non-believers do not accept these reasons then that is because they are not adequately informed about the sacred texts, that the religious could claim "...that non-believers think otherwise because they are inadequately informed: to be unaware of an omniscient being's express judgements is to be desperately ignorant." This argument fails because the non-believer is, or can be, informed as to the content of the sacred texts (indeed a Pew survey in 2010 found that generally atheists knew more about religion than believers), they simply do not accept the content as valid. This is an inevitable situation in a pluralistic world. Religions present absolutist world views that are incompatible with each other as well as with atheists, with no fair and just way to arbitrate between them (as they are absolute). If we cannot deliberate reasonably in a democracy then we give way to mob rule. Hence why we have secularism; religion A cannot be reconciled with religion B,  therefore they cannot be used to justify state coercion (e.g. establishing primacy of one religion over the other). The secular response is to protect people's freedom to choose and follow their religion, as part of a broader move to protect the liberty of all.

Reasonable public justification needs to be just that. Where such justification is lacking coercion cannot be supported. Solely religious motivations inherently cannot provide reasonable public justification in a pluralistic world. But religion is a subset of a broader case, not a specific case. What cannot be justified should not be supported. This does not remove religion from the public sphere, nor should it. What it does is remove it as a deliberative basis, but it can still be a motivational force and a subject of debate. Deeply held beliefs can be supported even if a reasonable public justification cannot be made, providing there is not an undue impact on others, out of prudence, generosity, or respect.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Things I miss from Windows

What I miss from Windows (OS X Lion excites and disappoints):

- Having a local menu bar when I'm working on the second monitor.
- Being able to 'Show Desktop'. Sure I Mission Control, which really is great, but it doesn't let me see what I have on the desktop, which is normally cluttered up with stuff as my temporary working area
- A proper keyboard layout
- Having to switch back and forth between Ctrl and 'Other' for keyboard shortcuts when swapping computers. I'm sure there must be an easy way to customise this one.
- Having a calculator application, up until I discovered Spotlight would do that for me
- My iTunes configuration. I've been putting off synchronising my iPhone with the Mac Mini because it seems like a lot less hassle in the short term to fire up the Windows box. iTunes on the Mini seems to be threatening to reorganise my iPhone applications, which is just plain uncomfortable.
- Running demanding games

I've not fully transitioned yet as I've not fully decided and implemented a plan on how to manage all my files and backups. I'm pretty happy using the Mini for day-to-day stuff though, and it is super quiet (and my Windows box was on the quiet side anyway).

Lots of oddities to iron out. Lots of things I can pass judgement on saying Mac is better or Windows is better for X or Y. I'm not totally sure which I'm happier with overall yet, it'd be unfair to make a hasty comparison when Mac OS is fighting against 16 years or so of Windows experience.

Oh and Microsoft Office, I miss you terribly.

Deliberative Democracy

Today's Political Philosophy paper is James S. Fishkin's Deliberative Democracy (1991).

Fishkin discusses the tension between three aspects of democracy; Deliberation, Political Equality, and Non-Tyranny. Deliberation is the process of public reason to reach decisions, it is the "Filter" of society's values and preferences. Political Equality as well as being a value is a "Mirror" of the will of the people, and a leveller acting against entrenched interests and elites. Non-Tyranny is the goal to prevent, amongst other dangers, "Mob Rule".

a triangle representing tensions in democracy between the values of deliberation, equality, and non-tyranny
There is at present no ideal location in the conceptual space of democracy. As such we must seek to optimise our political systems to create a balance between these competing concerns. We may not wish to have a 'dead centre' position, but certainly a position around the middle balancing the competing aspects. Of course just where we currently are and where we wish to be in the conceptual space is a matter for debate, and a process that is also subject to these competing aspects.

Fishkin's concern is that we are moving too much towards Political Equality, to the determent of Deliberation. This concern isn't against political equality in the sense of 'who gets the vote', but in a broader sense in how institutions are run. Who gets to decide, who gets elected and why, how is deliberation carried out, who is a member of the Senate, etc. This is a concern about the equality of the process of democracy, not the equality of the subjects of democracy within the state though that is a concern if the situation moves towards mob rule.

Simply put the problems here are a) modern democracies are too large for everyone to participate in the formal public deliberation, and b) most of the public will be in state of 'rational ignorance' whereby they are are not informed, and further they may be uninterested and unequipped to partake in the deliberation. Many of the issues here are of group dynamics and relate to humans interact generally. Two people can have a conversation. A handful of people can have a debate. Increase numbers further and there needs to be structures and processes in place, e.g. agenda setting, turn taking, etc. Standard effects that inhibit group discussion occur, e.g. production blocking, evaluation apprehension, and social loafing (also known as 'Why the traditional conception of brainstorming is actually counterproductive').

Fishkin's proposal is to borrow from the Athenian model had have small groups selected as a microcosm of the people, set aside time, resources, information, and provide structured support so that they can engage in deliberative debate. The output from this can either inform policy directly, or be as a pubic statement of the will of the people. We already do this with our citizen juries, another legacy we owe the Athenians.

Deliberative democracy is seen as a good thing for the standard reasons, that it will be manifestly fair, bring about better policies, engage the citizenry and so forth. Interestingly Fishkin quotes Maddison as saying that deliberative institutions are important to capture the "cool and deliberate sense of the community", as opposed to the uncool and undeliberate people as a whole. This has echoes of the philosophical debate [this is code for I can't find the reference but it might be Frankfurt] on Free Will and how we treat one and another normally. We have a sense of people being in their right mind, or out of it. That some decisions are made in the heat of the moment, or when under some form of psychological or physiological stress and that we discount these or at least moderate our judgements because of them. There is a sense that the 'real' you is the cooler and deliberative you that reflects your long term goals and interests. Again, another thing to thank the Ancient Greeks for; the rise of reason and the move to abstract, concept based, universal thinking.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Invasion of the bin-people

Bins! Like buses!

a photograph of too many bins at a service station

This picture was taken at a service station on the M1. It shows a clear surplus of bins. Or some form of pod people posing as bins. Posing as drab and boring bins at that.

Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy

Joshua Cohen gives an account for an ideal deliberative procedure in Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy (from The Good Polity (1989)). This overview is another quick summary of paragraphs and sections.

  1. "A deliberative democracy is.. an association whose affairs are governed by the public deliberation of its members"
  2. "Democratic politics involves public deliberation focused on the common good, requires some form of manifest equality among citizens, and shapes the identity and interests of citizens in ways that contribute to formation of a public conception of the good"
  3. Cohen doesn't think that these three features (2) are 'natural sequences' of the ideal of fairness
  4. These features are arrived at by trying to instantiate an ideal of fairness whilst taking into account psychological and sociological assumptions (e.g. self-interest over collective interest, entrenched privilege, etc)
  5. Cohen doesn't think this (4) is good enough, as it is too indirect and instrumental a reason. Rather we arrive at (2) based on building an ideal of public deliberation
  6. Ideal deliberation:
    1. Is free. Free to deliberate (freed of prior norms), and free to implement the outcome and that the fact of an outcome is sufficient to comply with it
    2. Deliberation is reasoned (deliberation occurs). Here we can refer to Rawls' burdens of reason. 
    3. Parties are equal formally (as per rule and convention) and substantially (actually free without constraints, e.g. vested interests and the like)
    4. It aims to reach a consensus
  7. Public deliberation focuses the debate on the common good. "While I may take my preferences as a sufficient reason for advancing a proposal, deliberation under conditions of pluralism requires that I find reasons that make the proposal acceptable to others who cannot be expected to regard my preferences as sufficient reason for agreeing."
One of the possible objections that Cohen tackles is of injustice. His defence is roughly to analogous to the robust defence of liberal constraints that "liberal constraints are there to maximise liberty for all". Cohen's defence appears to be (obviously given here in rough form) that democracy is served by liberal values, e.g. free expression allows for the maximisation of deliberation, and therefore it is wrong (invalid?) for democratic decision making to reduce these liberal values. This argument takes liberal values to be instrumental in realising deliberative democracy.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Wi-fi woes on Mac Mini

I've got the new Apple Mac Mini, and the wifi connection has been a little flakey since day one. It doesn't lose a connection to the router (also an Apple product) but it seems to just stop talking to the Internet every so often, or at least slow down a lot. To add to the frustration the Apple TV will cheerfully see and access my iTunes library on the Windows box, yet can only see but not connect to the library on the Apple box. Tsk.

I had a quick look at what channels the neighbours were using for their wi-fi connection, and although there didn't seem to be a problem I thought I'd move over a bit anyway. So, using my Apple Mac Mini, connecting to my Apple router, using the default Apple tool for the Apple router I set the channel of the wifi network to 13. Thirteen I figured was a good one to go for. At the end of the channel list, and a lot of people would avoid it due to its alleged 'unluckyness'. All Appled up I made the switch. And the Apple Mac Mini repeatedly refused to connect to the Apple router. Nothing.

Using my Windows box, running a Microsoft operating system, I was successfully connected to the router and changed the channel to 9 and have successfully connected again. Fingers crossed this will solve the other problems too. Fun times.


Fingers uncrossed, switching channels on the router did solve the problem.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Elster - The Market and the Forum

Democracy is "the worse form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from to time" - Churchill

Democracy has some problems in idealised forms. A democracy needs some form of decision making procedure for those instances where the people don't unanimously back a course of action, and this is usually done by majority voting. This can be a problem because you can have a 'tyranny of the majority' where minority interests are either neglected, or oppressed. Secondly, everyone has an equal vote (which can also be argued as a plus point). Thus the uninterested, the uneducated, the bigoted, the malicious, the bribed, etc all have an equal vote to the careful and considerate voter.

Elster's paper tackles different approaches to democracy. He defines three views of politics, and divides these between Market based and Forum based views. The first is Social Choice Theory (SCT), which is the Market based view. SCT is considered to be an instrumental good (it brings about good ends but isn't good in itself), and is private. SCT is about preference ordering. There are problems with this, as a Market based view it is self centred and an aggregation of individual ego-centric votes will bring about a resolution that is a) for the general good, or even b) good at all. There are a number of other issues as well, such as strategic voting where citizens vote for the most likely least-worst outcome rather than the desired outcome. An ideal SCT based voting system should have "... anonymity (that all individuals should equally), non-dictatorship (a foritori no single individual should dictate the social choice), liberalism (all individuals should have some private domains within which their preferences are decisive), and strategy-proofness (it should not pay to express false preferences).

The second view of politics denies its privateness, and the third also denies that it is an instrumental good (and affirms that it is a good in itself). They are views of politics as the Forum where the citizenship engage and debate with each other.

When politics is public the political process can shape public opinion. Sharing ideas can broaden horizons and provide different views, which aids in bringing about a better state of affairs. Elster has seven objections to this: (1) if citizens are 'encouraged' to participate this is overly paternalistic; (2) unanimous and rationale agreement may not follow (see Rawls' public reason, see also various news articles and blogs...) and there may be no way of resolving competing conceptions of the good; (3) there may not be enough time to satisfactorily discuss an issues; (4) public discussion may not be positive and may not bring around a positive end; (5) the people as a whole are not necessarily equipped to reach a better outcome than a subset of people (witness the rise of homeopathy)(6) unanimity might be brought about by conformity rather than rational agreement, and; (7) it does not follow that public debate will purge selfish desires.

In the third view the political process is a good in itself. It causes people to engage reasonably and rationally with others, and the idea is that this becomes a 'habit'. People will have to frame their views in terms of public reason which others can engage with. This works as an end for society as a whole, but ultimately individuals would rarely be engaging in politics in order to become more reasonable and tolerant, they would merely be by products.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Some issues with the e-petitions website

The UK government e-petitions website has gone live and it has a few oddities and shortfalls (even allowing for it intended to be a simple site). Have a quick look at the response to this rejected petition:

screenshot of e-petition site

The feedback for rejection simply states "There is already an e-petition about this issue".

Shortfall #1: there is no link to the existing petition to allow interested parties to quickly view it and to respond.

Shortfall #2: the lack of a link is a failure to supply proof. The lack of a link means that the user has the burden of establishing that the rejection reason is true, and because it may not be clear which petition was considered a duplicate this may be difficult. Further, it may be that rather than being duplicated, the new petition was misunderstood and is deserving of being accepted if it was reworded, but the lack of a 'proof link' makes this a much more difficult task.

Shortfall #3: There is a heading for explanatory notes, with none provided. This would be improved if the heading was removed (arguably better still if explanatory notes were added). As it stands the message here is "we couldn't be bothered [rightly or wrongly] to fill in our form". Worse still, it emphasises that your response is using standardised text and there probably is no personal or involved response. Of course this is to be expected, the site has received many petitions and the staff were probably very busy, and standardisation and consistency are valuable approaches, but there is no need to actively promote the realisation that you have been given a standardised response.

Shortfall #4: At launch the site had an FAQ (ignoring the quibble that they called it FAQs). This is a personal bugbear of mine, and one for which I acknowledge can from time to time be okay, but if your site has an FAQ it's normally an admission of failure. "People don't understand our product/site/manuals/etc, and they keep asking us the same old questions, so here are the answers". An FAQ is completely understandable in the context of a product that has already launched and isn't really going to have the issues ironed out because of the prohibitive cost / upcoming sequel. In a website, at launch no less, an FAQ says either "In our pilot we noticed these problems and... we didn't fix them... but this should help you out", or "Before even launching our site we knew that people wouldn't understand it. We just didn't make the effort to make everything clear. So here are the list of problems and misunderstandings that people will probably face". Probably the worst sort of FAQ is the "You won't like our new policy, but here is us putting a brave spin on it".

Anyway. Right there, at the bottom of the page. An admission of failure "we know our site usability isn't up to scratch". 

Shortfall #5: A lack of foresight:

screenshot showing tabs with a low cap on the maximum number to be displayed

These tabs have an indication of how many items they contain. Generally a good idea. On launch-day these were display "100+", which suggests that the index doesn't go above 100. Nice. Day 1, maxed out. Someone didn't expect, or care, that relatively quickly there would be more than 100 petitions. Not much foresight there. Day 2 there are 580 accepted petitions.

Hopefully (as in 'this would be less bad' as opposed to 'this would be ideal') these are rough orders of magnitude and we'll seen 1,000+, etc. The lack of space, particularly on the Rejected tab, doesn't fill me with confidence though.

Shortfall #6: There does not appear to be a Welsh version of the site, which I believe to be a violation of the Welsh Language Act. Naughty.

Despite these complaints I kinda like it. Simple and straight forward, which is what a government website needs to be. 

Multiculturalism failure in Lancashire

I've used the following as a quote a few times in essays and discussion, so I thought it useful to repost it here. It comes from an article on the Lancashire Telegraph website about introducing humanism and atheism as part of the RE curriculum, and is a quote from one Salim Mulla the chair of the Lancashire Council of Mosques.

Broadly speaking a multicultural society is one that supports a plurality of world views and 'cultures' within a polity. To be successful, these world views need to get along with each other even when they are not in harmony. In short, for it to be a multicultural society and not a fragmented one, the people need to at least tolerate, and respect that others hold different views. In practice to allow citizens the freedom to pursue these diverse ends the polity needs to be liberal; one that allows people the liberty to pursue their ends. A liberal society needs to equip it's citizens with the ability, potential, and freedom to choose their way of life, otherwise those citizens don't have liberty. As part of this citizens need to be aware that they have other choices, that other world views exist.

In the UK this is one of the reasons we have RE lessons. RE teaches about different world views to broaden horizons, and help people to understand that others may have fundamentally different world views and that's okay. RE is about religious understanding. This should probably be subsumed into a broader citizenship and ethics class, but that's a whole different story. Religious instruction is left to parents and whatever temple is attended. (Important exception here: the varyingly applied rule for collective worship in schools).

So.. we want our children to know about other religions as part of their education. It allows them to choose. It broadens their horizons and exposes them to novel ways of thinking. It helps them to understand The Other, and in a school where children have a wide range of faiths and world views it helps them to understand that people who believe radically different things to them are still people just like you. Because, you know, apartheid is bad.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the quote from Lancashire Telegraph and the chair of the local muslim council of mosques on the subject of letting children know that not everyone believes in God:

“We believe it is important to have faith values whether that is Christian, Islamic or any other religion.

"The values are very, very important. I don’t think the non-God aspect should be introduced into the curriculum.

“I don’t think it is right. People are born into faiths and are brought up in that faith and that’s how it should stay.

“The non-faith beliefs send a wrong message to the children and confuse them.”

Interesting stuff. I think this underestimates children, and suggests that people shouldn't be free to choose their beliefs. Mr Mulla is of course entitled to his belief that those without faith are wrong, that's what being in a liberal society is all about, but I believe that saying "this world view on the matter of the existence of God, which is held by 30-60% of the nation [depending on the polls and phrasing of the question], shouldn't be mentioned in a class that is supposed to teach children about other world views and should in effect be censored" seems ... well... a little insular.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Rawls - The Status of Majority Rule

Next up on the reading list is section 54 of Rawls' A Theory of Justice: The Status of Majority Rule.

I have difficulty reading Rawls. I largely agree with him and think he has sound arguments, but I tend to get a little lost in his exposition. So, this attempt at a summary will be a cheeky walkthrough to produce only a sentence from each paragraph.

1. Majority rule (e.g. democracy) is, hopefully, an instrumental good in that it brings about a legislative state of affairs grounded on the principles of justice (loosely liberty and equality).
2. It does not follow that what the majority wills is right, which is why we need constitutional limitations, though (interesting multiculturalism angle) we should be wary that entrenched minorities may use these limitations to preserve their illicit advantages.
3. A just constitution is "...defined as a constitution that would be agreed upon by rational delegates in a constitutional convention who are guided by the two principles of justice" and the Viel of Ignorance (VI) and Original Position (OP) come into play here as part of a conceptual ideal procedure.
4. A law or policy is just if it could be arrived at via the ideal procedure (VI and OP).
5. A problem with majority decision as an instrument of reaching a correct decision is that people influence each other (lots of human interaction stuff here: group think, evaluation apprehension, social loafing, etc... hmm... perhaps law making needs a fresh looking using the group decision making and creativity literature)
6. There are some benefits from having lots of people involved in decision making though, the exchange of opinion "...checks our partiality and widens our perspective"
7. So we want an ideal procedure.. but don't have it at the moment
8. An ideal political process is different to an ideal market process, because you won't get an efficient outcome if everyone only considers their own interest
9. We can't really bring about an ideal procedure (where people make the laws), we must rely on a certain extent on the people being just, but we should still aim to move towards it
10. Because of the equality principle, in the ideal procedure everyone's vote has equal weighting; one *cough* man one vote, which is a bit different to the ideal market, though I don't know why we should be caring about the ideal market at this stage
11. For any given legislative choice there may be a range of possible outcomes in the 'outcome landscape' that could be considered to be just
12. The role of majority decision making is to choose policies that lie on the 'justice peaks' in the 'outcome landscape', which will make the decision authoritative though not definitive.

Interesting aside: (some) theists claim that only God can provide objective morality. Setting aside the truth value of that, the subjectivity of interpreting that morality, and the Euthyphro dilemma... can the Original Position be considered a basis for objective morality? It appears to be in all but name in A Theory of Justice. Well, to be fair I've not read the whole thing so it could be in name as well.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Transferring playlists in iTunes

This is the best I've managed to come up with so far for transferring playlists (for some reason you can't drag and drop through home sharing). This was done between my iPhone and what is hoped to be it's new host computer.

1. Connect device (home share?)
2. Find the relevant playlist
3. Right click and select Export, and export the file to somewhere handy
4. In iTunes go to Library -> Import and select your newly exported file


One of those "seems obvious when you know how, but why am I stuck doing it this way anyway" things.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Walzer's Philosophy and Democracy

Today's reading was Walzer's Philosophy and Democracy (1981). Walzer's piece is interesting, and sometimes heavy on exposition, and covers tensions between philosophy and democracy. Two tensions Walzer highlights are:

1. The will of the people vs what is right: quoting Rosseau's argument that political legitimacy rests on will (consent) and not on reason (rightness)
2. The more rights the judges award to the people as individuals the less free the people are as a decision making body

Point 1 can in a simple form be summed up as 'mob rule'. We are not willing to give limitless decision making power to the people as a whole, because this power can be used to abuse others. Boundaries must be placed to constrain the decision making power of the people, as this is normally done in the form of rights and/or a constitution. Persons are granted rights such as the right to life, such that the people cannot simply will the death of an individual. Which brings us around to point 2; the more rights that are given out, the less decision making power the people have in a democracy.

This may or may not be a problem. If rights are limited to 'foundational rights', those that should take precedence, then this can only be a good thing. The situation becomes problematic when we have rights inflation, or rights are over-applied or over-interpreted.

Returning to point 1, another aspect of the issue is that what the people choose may not be right. There is a clear tension here, and it needs to be carefully considered to see where the boundaries lie. Democracy can loosely be termed rule by the people for the people. The decisions reached should be beneficial for the people, and not parochial. Both parts here are important; decisions and beneficial. The people should influence the law because they are the subject of the law. Autonomy, freedom, liberty... are goods and therefore beneficial. One must have plausible options to be exercising freedom and autonomy. The people then must be allowed to make bad choices, or perhaps at least choices that aren't as good. How to define this is of course fraught with danger, potential totalitarianism and the like. Returning to point 2, the according of rights could be said to constrain certain choices but to act to overall maximise autonomy. As Walzer says "[providing a minimum set of welfare]... would guarantee to each citizen the opportunity to exercise his citizenship, and that is an opportunity he can hardly be said to have, or to have in any meaningful fashion, if he were starving to death or desperately seeking shelter for himself and his family".

Rights constrain certain choices, but maximise choice overall. Democracy-as-autonomy is preserved and enhanced by an appropriate set of rights.

Can we go further? To bound potential choices to better choices? We already do this in part through supporting democratic citizenship (education etc), public discourse, and general progress of knowledge. We, at least in the West, are no longer in a position where burning little old ladies as witches can be seen to be a 'good' choice in the political landscape. Much remains open in the political landscape, and it is the job of political theorists and philosophers to help us move up to the heights and avoid the valleys.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Does nobody understand wishes any more?

I have an Amazon wishlist. When people want to get me a gift and are at a loss as to what to get me I direct them to my wishlist. Recently two (of two) such people have come back to me and said they didn't know what to get me from the wishlist.

This is a puzzling response. By definition everything on the list is something that I want, something that I wish for. Gift shoppers can choose something that they particularly want to give me (they want me to have it, there is some additional meaning in that gift, it is in some manner a way of expressing or extending our relationship), or ... just pick something arbitrarily that is within their budget because it is a list of stuff that I want so they can't go wrong.

Clearly I have a small, and possibly self selecting, sample here so not much can be drawn from this experience. It does however pose food for thought and potential HCI/social research. Is the shopping metaphor flawed? Is it instantiated poorly? Have I somehow tainted the interaction by how I have communicated with potential gift givers? Do people mainly select gifts on the basis of how much they like the object? Do people see something they don't like and think "I don't like this, so X won't like it" rather than "This is something X wants, therefore it is a suitable gift"? Is the focus/object/emotional response/purpose of gift giving skewed more towards the giver than we would commonly suppose?

Or more tragically are we as a society paying less attention to wishes, hopes, and dreams of others? Or does everyone just think that my wishlist is full of boring stuff?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Nozick and Distributive Justice

Today's reading is from Robert Nozick and is drawn from his Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Nozick is libertarian and in this reading he argues in favour of a non-redistribution of goods in order to benefit society. The main arguments appear to be those of entitlement (if Jones can justifiably earn vast sums of money due to his talents then he is entitled to them), and that left to their own devices people will work in order to gain that which they want and that in order to prevent inequalities the state would need to interfere with what citizens gain and how they choose to use those goods that they are allowed.

The main thrust of the argument appears to be that left unregulated inequalities will always develop, and the state should not take away that which people are entitled to simply because others are less able, less willing, or less fortunate in their accumulation of goods.

As with many issues in philosophy it seems that an absolutist stance becomes ridiculous or untenable, and we need to try to tackle them and consider them as a moderate view. Here it certainly makes sense from a practical point of view to not regulate or only lightly regulate the distribution of goods. Or, as per Rawl's original contract idea, to create social institutions and arrangements that are just from the outset.

A potential counter to Nozick's arguments is that what we gain isn't necessarily what we are entitled to. Many examples of gaining through nefarious means spring to mind, but these don't serve well as a counter to Nozick's arguments. What does appear to stand up well, or so it seems to me, is reframe the issue in terms of groups and society rather than as individuals. Goods are a social resource, and usually finite. Accumulating a high proportion, or a large influence, over these social resources diminishes the pool of available goods for others, and harms their capability to acquire a share of the remaining goods. Simply because individual transactions seem fair, in aggregate they can be unfair and result in a proportion of society that the individual is not entitled to.  Additionally, recent research [citation needed] suggests that inequalities in societies is linked to a multitude of social 'ills' such as higher crime rates, lower literacy, lower life expectancies, etc (greater religiosity too, but that is whole different matter and the direction of the effect more contentious). By accumulating an undue share of social goods, society as a whole suffers meaningfully in ways not directly attributable to the share of goods. Society could be viewed as a system, with a requirement of a redistribution of resources to keep it functioning adequately. Individuals cannot live in isolation from other humans whilst maintaining their wealth (well at least not until we have a post scarcity society, or robot underlings/overlords); that wealth is a measure of social resource that can be called upon in the form of clothes, food, housing, etc.

None of this defeats the libertarian view, but it does set a case for restricting how much should be accumulated by an individual. I'm leaning towards an ideal being allowing individual accumulation and inequalities, but for the whole to be dampened. There should not be a great gap between the least and most well off.

As a rambling aside a modern notion of entitlement comes from Locke, along the lines if you mix your labour with unclaimed stuff (e.g. land) then you are entitled to it, with appropriate caveats about not taking it all and disadvantaging others. Where this seems to be break down is with inheritance, or perhaps more accurately with the arrival of the world of more persons who would benefit from (or are disadvantaged by not having access to) a share.

The reading also covers Nozick's "taxation is slavery" argument and raises the issue of property rights, and says that those that tax us are asserting a property right in us. This is a troubling argument. Potential counters include arguing that taxation is like slavery and is on a continuum with slavery, or that there is an implied contract by being part of a state and that one can opt out of it by leaving the state. This has shades of degrees of freedom about it; leaving a state isn't a trivial matter, and there may not be any other suitable states to go to.

Property rights is also an interesting point. There are interesting articles in the literature that break property rights into different sorts, e.g. control rights, and ownership rights. Also, rights may be infringed as opposed to be violated. A right is infringed if it is not upheld, but it is reasonable not to do so (e.g. my mobile phone is mine and if I leave it on the table I expect nobody to use it, but if there is a medical emergency it is reasonable for someone to use my phone without my permission to call the emergency services).

It seems that there are also different types of ownership, or more appropriately I would term this there are different types of 'my properties'. Some things are mine like my phone, and my socks. Some things are mine like my brother or daughter. Some things are mine like my eyes and my hands. Some things are mine like my ideas and stories. Some things are mine like the custodianship of a public office, or of a social artefact. Ah, taxonomies are wonderful things. We could break down the 'my properties' (needs a suitable latin or greek term methinks) and assign different types of rights and responsibilities to them.

So there you go. A brief unedited ramble of one of the readings for the Open University's A851 Philosophy course.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

March's Reading

Ooh aaaah eeee oooo ummm. Not much to report on the reading front. Still plugging away at the same non fiction. Started on Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which is a course text. I finished the Malazan Book of the Fallen, a journey (of 3.5 million words) that felt strangely less emotional than I was expecting. Definitely worth a read if you're feeling up to diving into a large and complex fantasy series.

Next up was David Weber's Out of the Dark, which was a bit.. meh. An interesting idea which didn't really develop until towards the end. This is fine itself, but I didn't find the rest of the book to be particularly noteworthy (unless if you like hearing about different models of guns that is). I picked up the book expecting the 'twist' from the start because it was given away by the description on Amazon. Bah humbug. If you want to try some Weber give his Starfire books a go.

Having a Fitt

Look at these poor tiny little buttons. What have Adobe's users done to deserve such tiny little things when there is no apparent need for them? According to Fitts's Law speed to get intercept an interaction area is a function of distance and target size. Or in other words, small buttons are difficult to get to and click, especially if they're far away. I'm not sure why, given the huge amount of available screen space here they have opted for small buttons.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

February's reading...

Dust of Dreams, book 9 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Yup, I'm slowly trawling through the series still and getting a big backlog of books waiting to be read.

I'm currently reading A Very Short Introduction: The Philosophy of Science. I 'do' science at work, and am generally interested in science. I like to think that I'm good at it and understand the principles, but somewhere along the way I don't think I've ever been explicitly taught the underlying philosophy and about what chaps like Popper and Kuhn have been talking about. Maybe I slipped through the cracks, maybe it just isn't generally taught any longer, maybe my university level education hasn't been sufficiently sciencey, or maybe they don't try to squeeze all that stuff into your brain until you get around to doing an MPhil.

More of a reference text this one, but I picked up a copy of Experimental Design and Analysis for Psychology that was on sale at Oxford University Press. 

Stay on target... (the task artefact cycle and remaining focussed on the task)

Two useful things to keep in mind when working in HCI (and more generally when considering systems); the task-artefact cycle, and remembering not to lose sight of the task by becoming overly focused on the current (or to be) tools.

The task-artefact cycle is one of those "obvious once it has been pointed out" things. Quite simply you have a given task, and a decision is made to change/support the task by introduce new or improved tools. Once the new tools are introduced they change the task. This is an obvious statement as it reflects the intended goal of introducing new tools. There are some subtleties involved however. The task may not have changed in the intended way, there may be secondary effects and repercussions elsewhere within a complex socio-technical system, and the task may have been radically altered. Once a new tool has been introduced a task should be re-evaluated (and it is generally useful to measure the effect of an intervention). Of course this isn't always practical and a pragmatic approach needs to be taken scaled to the importance of the task and the scale of the change. The key message here is that more than you anticipated may have changed. Some examples:

  • (from Freakanomics) People give blood for free. Giving blood is a Good Thing (tm) to do, and saves lives. In a bid to encourage more giving of blood They decided to provide a modest incentive. Blood giving rates dropped, because an altruistic activity to help others had changed to an mildly unpleasant and inconvenient paid-for activity that wasn't (generally) worth the reimbursement. An interesting example of mentally framing an activity.
  • (partly based on hazy memories of listening to Radio 4) In the UK in the last few years sperm donation underwent some procedural changes. Details of the donors became more available, and eventual offspring from the donation now had a 'right' to be able to find out how their paternal genetic donor was. This may have extended to being able to make contact with dear ol' gene-sire. Sperm donation rates crashed. Even before this change was implemented I was really surprised that They didn't seem to see this one coming. I can only guess that there was a bit of a user-centred design failure in that They a) failed to take donors as a human component of the system into account, b) they failed to carry out an adequate information gathering exercise, or c) one way or another they decided to just push on with it anyway (which frequently happens when there is already a Plan, and High Ups Want It To Happen (note I'm not suggested this was the case here)).
  • A frequent ideal for providing user-aids is to automate part of a task to free the human up to focus on the 'high level' stuff, e.g. letting designers be creative. One potential side repercussion of this is that the more 'mundane' tasks may be an important component of assisting the person in thinking through a problem, or providing juniors with critical experience.
  • Writing text with modern word processing tools can potentially be described as being radically different. It is now far easier to reuse material from drafts, to rearrange text, to collaborate on the same document, create and disseminate documents.
  • Calculators and spell checkers: an exercise for the reader
A frequent problem I encounter in HCI is that people get overly focused on the tools rather than the task. The task of an employee becomes to operate software, and various stakeholders lose sight of what the employee actually needs to do. Another common problem is what I call "serving the machine" where work becomes more about process and meeting the requirements of a tool. This can become more and more bizarre as corporate identity fades or layers of other tools and procedures are put in place. Serving the machine can become more and more important, even if the original reasons why something needs to be done have been forgotten, or rendered irrelevant. In a similar vein an organisation can be ruled by unhelpful metrics, simply because that is the metric that their system gives them, and hey here are some numbers or a graph and they must be important, right? Another case is when a set of metrics are provided on a dashboard results in everything else being ignored or no longer part of the corporate ontology.

I need a "Serving/Worship the Machine" mug/tshirt/banner/whatever to wave at stakeholders when they lose sight of the underlying task (or *mumblemumble* timesheets *mumble* days in advance *mumble* all because the report is generated too early *mumble*). 

I'd like to think this topic could be extended to create a framework of tool use and task actions that will Help Save The World, but where would I find the time?

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Moral Reasoning

At work I'm just finishing up a study about moral reasoning. What we've been doing is based on Kholberg's moral reasoning framework. I won't go into too much detail as better explanations of the moral reasoning framework can be found on the Internet. In short form the framework is a model of our our moral reasoning develops, moving through up to a potential of six stages split into three levels.

As wee monsters (aka the very young) we are operating at 'pre-conventional' morality, and have not yet obtained the standard level of moral reasoning. At this stage of moral reasoning we have an 'obedience and punishment' orientation, and move onto 'individualism and exchange'. An example of moral reasoning (as distinct from moral attitudes) at this stage is that of keeping promises on the basis that being known to keep promises allows future exchanges of promises. Someone reasoning at this stage would see nothing wrong with reneging on a promise if they believed that they would not be found out. Moral reasoning at the preconventional level is focused on Personal Interest.

Moving on from the pre-conventional stages most people develop to the, yes you guessed it, the 'conventional' stages. These stages appear to be tradition focused, norm-enforcing, and to a large part culturally-aspected. The value of the reasoning here then is based in part on our cultural laws, norms, and concept of being and the good. Most people end up at the conventional stage, and usually develop to stage 4 (warning hazy recollection of the numbers ahead) around age 14-21. Stage 3 reasoning is focused on positive personal relationships. Stage 4 reasoning is focused on maintaining social order. A worthwhile digression at this point; as development occurs through the stages the theory is that the previous stages are integrated into our reasoning, and are not simply rejected.

Postconventional reasoning focuses on broader and deeper issues. Stage 5 reasoning asks "What is this social order that we're maintaining? What do we want from it? What should it be? How can it serve the people?". Stage 5 reasoning could be argued to be the impetus for democracy (though again I would imagine this is culturally aspected; if citizens were universally content why question the social order?). Stage 6 reasoning focuses on universality and underlying principles. What is the good? How can we achieve it? How do we reason about these things? What principles should we adopt and why?

Postconventional reasoning is what philosophers should be aiming for, indeed what much of philosophy is about (ramble: this framework could plausibly be generalised to a reasoning framework). So far the evidence is on the side of the Philosophers; the DIT test (which is a measure of moral reasoning and Kholbergian-based) uses political scientists and philosophers as the upper anchor for the measure because of their performance on the DIT.

So... how is this topical?

The West, and to an extent the rest of the world through the UN Declaration of Human Rights, can be said to operate a theory of rights as the (or a) underlying principle of determining the good. Rights can be considered as the STOP signs for policy and justice. [Sweeping musing statement that will not be supported alert] Utilitarianism and the Kantian categorical imperative are compelling ways of viewing justice, but are incomplete of themselves and lead to undesirable outcomes if followed dogmatically. (Derek Parfit has a handy phrase, which sadly eludes me at this point, for one example of utilitarianism taken too far.) Rights help inform policy as to what should be supported, but also to prevent utilitarianist policy going to far. Rights of course can be ill-conceived just as they can be well founded.

A conflict of Rights is topical in the news at the moment. What is the most balanced view to take? What is the most right? Should we recognise all of the accorded Rights? Are some of them being 'merely' infringed as opposed to violated? A more worrying question arises; to what extent do the general public recognise that just because you don't like something doesn't mean it isn't right, that supporting the Rights of to ensure a just society involves some degree of 'pain' or 'cost'. What is right isn't the same as what is good for you. This is preconventional moral reasoning and is internally focused. What is right isn't the same as how we've always done it or things that don't offend me or things that don't inconvenience me. Hanging on to the social rules of the past for comfort or to preserve a personally beneficial status quo isn't moral (or at least isn't high up the scale of moral reasoning). Of course it should also be said that we shouldn't abandon the past simply because it is the past, or because something shiny and new has come along, or for some misplaced political correctness, or even to give in to the tyranny of the majority (hence the need for something like Rights). Ideas should be assessed neutrally. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

I'd like to write (ramble) more, but I've already thrown up enough views without enough support and I'm overdue a trip to the supermarket.

This blog post was composed to the sound of Metallica being played on banjos. True story.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Uncultured Swine

Elster's Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory criticises functional explanations, and has an interesting summary of scientific explanations. Functional explanations are an 'objective teleology'; they postulate a purpose without a purposive actor. That is, functionalist explanations lack a causative mechanism. A tiger has stripes in order to hide better. We have eyes in order to see. The sun is in the sky so that we can see. In the case of the form of life Darwin provided us with the causal mechanism to explain how traits are gained; random mutation. Heritability and selection pressures then act somewhat like a feedback loop, at which point we can talk with our functionalist hats on.

Elster gives three main types of explanation: the causal, the functional, and the intentional. The sciences use causal explanations (which is part of what makes it science..), and the physical sciences use it exclusively. Biological sciences also use functional explanations, but this is done within the framework of the theory of evolution which provides the causal mechanism, the functional interpretation explains the why based on the utility of the attribute. Elster goes on to say that social sciences' use of intentional explanations, and the 'proper' approach should be causal-intentional, with nary a hint of functionalism.

Elster critiques Marxism for its extensive use of functionalist explanations of (capitalist) society. One part of the text that tickled me was a restatement of Bourdieu's assertion that when intellectuals play around with language and even deliberately violate the rules of grammar, that this is a 'strategy designed to exclude the petty-bourgeois would-be intellectuals'. This is a functionalist explanation that does indeed give a rationale for the observed behaviour (even if not a very good one). Elster suggests that this argument is a 'theoretical analgue of envy - arising when our "factual inability to acquire a good is wrongly interpreted as a positive action against a desire"'. Later Elster goes on to quote poetry from Goethe via Marx, so standing out like an inscrutable rhino grazing in the work canteen are four lines of German poetry in the middle of a Philosophy text. Is Elster trying to exclude me? Is my mild annoyance merely a sign of my envious regard of Elster? Or am I merely an uncultured swine?

Monday, 24 January 2011

January's reading..

Toll The Hounds, book 8 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. This is my current favourite fantasy series and I'm part way through reading the series again in anticipation of the release of book 10 in February. Large, weighty, rambling, complex, jarring, and endearing. The biggest let down is that I don't know anyone else reading the series, and the series is difficult to get into as the first book isn't as good and can be a bit of a confusing slog at times. It's definitely worth the effort of getting through.

I'm just finishing up Colin Ware's Visual Thinking for Design. This book provides some of the theory and science behind our our visual processing works, and then goes on to provide advice on how to support visual cognitive tasks, sketch prototyping, and various other bits and pieces including a dictionary of visual relationships.

Kymlica's Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction covers utilitarianism, liberal equality, libertarianism, Marxism, communitarianism, citizenship theory, multiculturalism, and feminism. If you're not sure what all of these things are, then this may be the book for you. By providing a grounding in these areas this book has helped to clarify my thinking, and helped me to spot the arguments and underpinnings behind many current political issues.

I'm also growing a little more aware of political issues, and slowly coming around to the notion that as much as I'm not particularly interested in taking part in political life (beyond voting etc) that perhaps I can't rely on others to be. Though the mainstream in the UK is (more or less) moderate and sensible, there are pressure groups and the like that wield disproportionate influence due to their use of the media, organised responses to consultations, etc.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Time Management

One of the spurs for trying to manage my time more effectively and have a learning log was reading "Working Life and Learning", a free course module from the Open University. The material included a list of handy tips on time management:
  1. Delegate
  2. Prioritise tasks
  3. Set Goals
  4. Meet deadlines early
  5. Stay organised (including keeping a to do list)
  6. Find your productive time
  7. Minimise stress
  8. Learn to say No
  9. Reduce the intrusion of technology
All pretty simple stuff really, but going through the list made me realise just how poor I am at time management. On the list the only items that I'm good at are minimising stress, and not being bugged by technology. So, onwards and upwards! I'm going to try and put these into practice, and I've already started by organising my notebooks and such and creating myself a daily to-do list complete with goals and small challenges. And this learning journal of course.

Set Goals is an interesting one. Having goals that make you work, and perhaps stretch you, but are reasonable and within reach has been shown to improve performance. This is quite interesting in terms of running businesses and teams (and how well implemented performance management systems are, or as the case may be aren't). It also ties in with research on creativity, including Csikszentmihayli's concept of Flow. Having tasks that challenge us, take up our capacities, but don't tax us too much helps us to develop, to learn, and get in 'flow' where we can  achieve things more creatively than normal. There is probably a lot to be said here about living the good life, and putting our capabilities to good use, but I'll leave commenting on that for another day*.

* This may be a lie.

Getting started

Are you interested in learning about my two main learning topics of HCI and Philosophy? If so, you should try the following books:
  • The Design of Everyday Thingsby Donald Norman. A good introduction into the hows and whys of making products so that they're actually safe, efficient, and fun to use.
  • Think by Simon Blackburn. An introduction to Philosophy.
Both books are accessible and enjoyable reads. While I'm on the topic, here is a handy-dandy list of useful HCI books that I made earlier.

And so it begins...

This is intended to be a learning log, a means to keep track of interesting things that I learn and help to consolidate my learning. I think I do quite well at learning, but my approach is to stumble or bulldoze my way through it. I don't learn in a clever or systematic way. I probably never will, but I can try to improve.

Hopefully this blog will also help improve my writing style..

So, what am I learning? All kinds of things ideally, but sadly time is limited so I'm sticking to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Philosophy. The first is for my job, the second for ... I forget what for exactly, but I'm studying for a Masters in it. This may raise a question for some of you; if you're all into HCI why don't you have your own funky website? Ha! As if I have time for that. Laziness and sleep deprivation prevails.