Saturday, July 28, 2012

Can you always trust reason?

Thankyou to Dave Grant of Greengates School, Mexico City, for sending me this. It is a debate taken from the website of the British newspaper the Guardian. The motion is "reason is always right".

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ethics and the Free Market

Michael Sandel is Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University. He has commented extensively on the free market and how it affects public ethics. It is interesting to think about how money and our perception of wealth affect our ethical decisions, as he outlines in this video clip:

I've provided a link below to a discussion in which he and an audience at the London School of Economics address the ethical question of whether a nurse should be paid more than a banker:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Power of Shakespeare

Robben Island lies 6.9 km west of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. It has been used to jail political prisoners since the seventeenth century and it was there that Nobel laureate and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for 27 years (together with many other opponents of apartheid).

I listened to a BBC podcast recently (see below) which told the story of a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, belonging to one of the prisoners, Sonny Venkatrathnam.

He disguised it as a religious book by decorating it with pictures of Hindu gods in order to avoid it being confiscated by prison guards (inmates were allowed to keep only religious texts), and it became known, somewhat spuriously, as The Robben Island Bible. As he served his sentence, between 1972 and 1978, Venkatrathnam passed the book between the inmates and they signed their names next to their favourite passages.

This has been seen as a vindication the power of Shakespeare (and language) and the book has been hailed as a modern icon, not least by the British Museum which is displaying it as part of its exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World.

It is very poignant to read the passage highlighted by Mandela (from Julius Caesar), knowing in hindsight that he would leave prison, unbroken, to become president of his country. At the time, he, himself, might have expected to die on Robben Island, and there was no prospect of release. However, I have also read comments from a number of his fellow prisoners (including some high ranking members of the African National Congress) who don't regard the book as iconic (as reported in the Toronto Star below). Some of those who signed it saw it merely as a 'study aid', and it is perhaps understandable that some apartheid prisoners failed to develop a deep reverence for these pieces of European literature.
Robben Island Bible

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bad Statistics

Paraphrasing an article originally published by Ben Goldacre on his Bad Science blog in 2008:

"In 1954 a man called Darrell Huff published a book called How to Lie with Statistics. Chapter one is called 'the sample with built in bias'.

Huff sets up his headline: 'The average Yaleman, Class of 1924, makes $25,111 a year!' said Time magazine. That figure sounded pretty high: Huff chases it, and points out the flaws. How did they find all these people they asked? Who did they miss? Losers tend to drop off the alma mater radar, whereas successful people are in Who’s Who and the College Record. Did this introduce selection bias into the sample? And how did they pose the question? Can that really be salary rather than investment income? Can you trust people when they self-declare their income? Is the figure spuriously precise? And so on.

In the intervening fifty years this book has sold one and a half million copies, it’s the greatest selling stats book of all time (a very tough market) and it remains in print."

Perhaps one and a half million copies is not going to single-handedly change public attitudes towards statistics, however, you might expect statistical reporting to have improved somewhat. This is certainly not the case in the mainstream media where spurious surveys with headline grabbing conclusions are quoted on a daily basis (I will have to try to dig out some examples to support this accusation), making the same mistakes that Huff was fighting against in the '50s. Perhaps the worst thing is that so few journalists are actually prepared to question the data and consider inbuilt bias. I suppose newspapers have effectively passed this responsibility on to the reader.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012


I saw this piece of art at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, UK this week, and failed to be really blown away by it.

Despite the fact that it is now accepted as one of the most influential pieces of art of the twentieth century (and the first piece of conceptual art), the original was lost soon after it was originally exhibited in 1917 and there are now only a few copies in art collections in galleries around the world. These were officially sanctioned by the artist, Marcel Duchamp, in the 1960s.

The Liverpool Tate made an interesting study recently by exhibiting some of their most famous acquisitions in public places around the city. Fountain, for example, was shown in a public toilet. Here is a short film which explores the reactions of some local people to it:

The Fountain

Friday, July 6, 2012

Can you see time?

People with a condition known as synaesthesia apparantly can. This is caused by an unusually high number of connections between two areas of the brain's sensory cortex, making the perception of space and time inseperable. The article below describes how synaesthetes perceive the world around them. You can also visit the website of the UK Synaesthesia Association here.

I was interested to read in the article that synaesthetes have a heightened sense of empathy. In the same way, therefore, that some could argue that autistic people have a different take on ethics (as I posted previously), the same could be said for people with synaesthesia.

In this audio clip, the synaesthetic woman mentioned in the article, Holly Branigan, tries to describe how she 'visualises' time.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

More Presentation Advice

Here is a prezi from Jeff Taylor which gives some really nice advice on how to structure your presentation. It includes a lot of feedback from examiners about problems with presentations they have marked and therefore should help you to avoid some of the more common pitfalls.