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I guess it's finally Ciao! then... (27/11/17)

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since 30/06/2001

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On Liberty and Other Essays - John Stuart Mill 30/11/2017

Four Essays at a Bargain Price

On Liberty and Other Essays - John Stuart Mill This volume contains what are undoubtedly Mill’s two best-known and most-studied works, along with two other pieces of his political philosophy. The essays herein are not the most definitive statements of Mill’s views, but represent his attempts to write for a general audience. In the titular On Liberty, he defends the view that the only justification for coercing a competent member of a civilised society is to prevent harm to others, thereby rejecting the widely held belief that it is the business of law or society to uphold moral standards or to prevent individuals from harming themselves. This ‘harm principle’ was arguably instrumental in the liberalisation of attitudes towards blasphemy, homosexuality, and obscenity, though it seems that many present governments are increasingly keen to regulate unhealthy foods and lifestyles. This volume also contains Mill’s essay on Utilitarianism, defending the greatest happiness principle, which Mill saw as the ultimate test for all conduct, from various criticisms such as that it neglects the finer things in life, reducing men to the level of beats, that regarding happiness as the sole end in life means neglecting virtue, and that focus on aggregate wellbeing is contrary to justice. The other two essays are less-studied, but nonetheless help to present a more rounded picture of Mill’s views. The Subjection of Women makes plain that Mill’s defence of liberty was intended to apply to both sexes. To a modern reader, arguments that ...

Black & Decker CLMA4820L2 29/11/2017

A Cut Above?

Black & Decker CLMA4820L2 For the last few years, we were in a rented house which came with the landlord’s electric mower. Since moving to our own place in March, we had only an old push-along mower, chosen because of my partner’s dislike of trailing electric cables. This battery powered option was just the job. No cable for her to worry about, but it makes much easier work of cutting the grass than the manual one. It’s a pretty heavy box. This includes two batteries and a few peripherals, not all of which are needed, but the mower itself is still fairly heavy. While it’s easy enough to push along, this does make it a bit of a job to lift. The instructions warn not to lift it by the handle, but to use a couple of grips on the main body. However, this is quite difficult when in our storage box. This brings me to one gripe… The stated dimensions are 79 x 47.2 x 41 cm. That’s obviously 79cm long. I assumed, with the handle, that it would be taller than it is wide. In fact though the handle can be folded up for storage, which is quite neat. (It clips into place pretty easily.) But it means the mower only fits into our plastic storage box on its side (see picture). I’m not sure whether this is particularly good for it, but the only alternatives would be to leave it uncovered or carry it through the house to get to the garage, so it’s what we’re doing. It’s here that the weight and position of the grips is a bit of a problem. I have managed to get it out on my own, but it was a struggle and knocked the ...

Political Philosophy - David Miller 29/11/2017

Short and Sweet

Political Philosophy - David Miller I used quite a few Very Short Introductions during my undergraduate degree and often found them helpful starters when studying a new topic, author, etc. I believe this one didn’t come out until the end of my degree, because I believe it was summer 2003 that I read it, partly because the author (David Miller) had been assigned to supervise my Master’s degree in political theory. I mention that in the interests of full disclosure, but I told him I’d read it at our first meeting and he replied that he’d really written it for A level students, so we spoke no more of it. Ch. 1: Why do we need political philosophy? Philosophers challenge conventional assumptions and aim at critical thought rather than mere opinion. Political philosophers concern themselves with question such as ‘what is the best form of government?’ Ch. 2: Political authority Most of us recognise the law as having legitimate authority, but it is also backed up by the threat of sanctions. This chapter briefly discusses anarchism, but is mainly concerned with whether there’s an obligation to obey the law. Ch. 3: Democracy Democracy is supposed to make laws responsive to the people, but there are dangers of bad decision making (if the people are ignorant and, worse, manipulated) and of majority tyranny if minority rights are not protected by constitutional rights. Ch. 4: Freedom and the limits of government Most of us think government should be limited, to preserve freedom. This chapter considers how to measure ...

Utilitarianism (Oxford Philosophical Texts) - J. S. Mill 29/11/2017

For the Greatest Happiness

Utilitarianism (Oxford Philosophical Texts) - J. S. Mill Mill’s Utilitarianism is a staple of many undergraduate philosophy degrees. Indeed, I first read it in my first term at university (all the way back in autumn 2000). I suspect many have had similar experiences. It’s a shame, in a way, that this work – like Descartes’ Meditations – isn’t so commonly studied at higher levels. Utilitarianism sets out to defend the greatest happiness principle, which Mill saw as the ultimate test for all conduct, from various criticisms such as that it neglects the finer things in life, reducing men to the level of beasts, that regarding happiness as the sole end in life means neglecting virtue, and that focus on aggregate wellbeing is contrary to justice. It’s worth noting that Mill’s utilitarianism was quite different from that of his predecessors, such as Bentham, or the ‘classical’ utilitarianism defended by J. J. C. Smart in the 20th century. The work was originally written for a popular audience, although in the 1850s/60s. This means it can seem a little dry to modern readers, but it’s not filled with technical vocabulary or the like. Mill really was out to convert readers to his cause, mostly by dispelling what he saw as common misconceptions about the theory. This doesn’t mean it’s all easy going. Chapter 5, on justice, is particularly difficult to follow in places. Moreover, other parts of the text have been taken, at least by unsympathetic commentators, to be obviously flawed. The most notable, and controversial, parts are the ...

Beko WM 7120 W 01/04/2017

A fair budget option, but I'd pay more for a better model

Beko WM 7120 W Having recently been through the process of buying a new washing machine, I thought it would help others if I reviewed our old one. I say ‘our’ – it actually belongs to our former landlord (hence the need to buy a new one), nonetheless, we had this from new in December 2014, so we have over two years’ experience of using it. At the time of purchase, it cost £200 from Argos (plus a little extra for delivery and removal of the old machine). I’d say that this is on the cheaper end of the market; less than we paid for our new machine anyway. At the time of writing (March 2017), this still seems to be a current model and available at around the same price. As with any expensive items like this, it can certainly be worth shopping around for a good deal as prices (and extra charges for delivery or connection) can vary a lot between different retailers. Ciao’s price comparison function should give a good idea of current prices. I won’t attempt to give an exhaustive list of technical specifications or instructions, as these can be found online (direct from the manufacturer or most retailer websites). I’ve added pictures showing the controls and a page from the manual, which give a good idea of the various settings on offer. I’ll focus on a review, based on our experience of using the machine. This takes a load of up to 7kg, which is a good capacity, though some machines take up to 9kg these days. I’ve never weighed my laundry; I just stick it in until the drum is mostly full, but ...

Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists - Danny Dorling 27/01/2017

Unjust or merely unequal?

Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists - Danny Dorling The ‘Still’ in the subtitle reflects the fact that this book is an updated second edition of Dorling’s earlier ‘Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists’. I ordered it after seeing the author give a talk on health and inequality at the University of Southampton, which I found eye-opening, but I thought at the time that there were some potential problems with the argument. For example, he suggested that more equal societies result in higher levels of social solidarity. I’m sure there is a positive correlation, but it isn’t at all clear to me that material equality causes solidarity, rather than the reverse (societies with greater levels of solidarity are able to achieve more equality). I wanted to see whether the book did more to justify these claims. Now having read the book, I’m still rather unsure what to make of the argument. There’s an awful lot of empirical evidence, but the style is certainly not the ‘objective’ or ‘dispassionate’ style you might expect of a (social) scientist. In his defence, Dorling does reflect on this, pointing out that it’s difficult to write about wrongs without being at least a little angry (p. 379). I suppose what leaves me most dissatisfied is that Dorling spends an awful lot of time showing how unequal certain Western societies (principally the UK and US) have become, and shows that this inequality is not ‘natural’ or inevitable, but – despite the book’s title – he does relatively little to show that this inequality is unjust. There are ...

Brexit: what's next? 12/07/2016

Not much mandate for anything...

Brexit: what's next? As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) have all vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy. We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place. Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE. Others made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation with our European neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only consider two alternatives, though there are intermediate possibilities.) Obviously, these alternatives ...

Artisan Grains Country Veg & Cashew Nut Roast 24/05/2015

Cashing in on Cashews

Artisan Grains Country Veg & Cashew Nut Roast I first heard of this product from a review on Ciao. Since I’m vegetarian and my girlfriend is vegan, I kept it in mind as something to try and it just so happened that this weekend was a perfect opportunity since we had my dad visiting and were looking for something slightly special to cook. I am therefore writing this review on the basis of only having tried the product once, but it’s not the kind of thing where repeated exposure is likely to lead to greater insight. Nut roasts are a fairly standard vegetarian option in Sunday roasts or Christmas dinners. To be honest, though I like roasts, I’m not all that fussed about a meat replacement: I’m happy to have a pile of potatoes, parsnip, vegetables and maybe some stuffing, if it comes to it. That said, we quite often have some kind of vegetable-based burger, such as a spicy beanburger or nut cutlet (which are fairly standard parts of the vegetarian range in both Tesco and Sainsbury’s). Cooking Making a nut roast from scratch would be a lot more effort and not something that we’d be inclined to try very often, but this Artisan Grains roast really is near effortless. You get a little bag full of what looks like stuffing mix. All you have to do is transfer this into a mixing bowl, add 200ml of cold water, mix, and then leave to stand for 5 minutes. Once this is done, transfer back into the supplied cardboard roasting tray and bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes at gas mark 4 (180 Celsius). (We actually gave it slightly ...

Not For Profit - Martha Nussbaum 16/05/2015

Education for Democracy

Not For Profit - Martha Nussbaum Education, particularly at university level, is increasingly regarded in economic terms. With many UK students now paying up to £9,000/year in fees, many of them expect a return on this investment, usually in the form of a well-paid job at the end. Politicians have encouraged this perspective – it’s telling that universities fall under the jurisdiction of the Department for Business, Industry and Skills and not the Department for Education. Students face pressure to choose more ‘vocational’ courses, while politicians (despite their free market rhetoric) seek to promote the natural sciences (subsidising STEM subjects, while cutting arts funding). It seems that the humanities – including language, literature, history, philosophy – are under threat from all sides. This book is a defence of the non-economic values of humanistic education, in the traditional American ‘liberal arts’ model. (The author, Martha Nussbaum, is Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, with a distinguished record of publications straddling classics, law, philosophy, and political science.) There are two prongs to Nussbaum’s argument. First, even if we value education economically, we are wrong to denigrate the humanities, since a successful economy requires creative, critical individuals. More fundamentally, though, the purpose of education is not simply to make money, but to produce rounded individuals capable of leading meaningful lives and participating in a democratic society. We ...

What has the past five years taught us about the merits and demerits of government by a coalition rather than a single party ? 17/04/2015

It works, so let's not be afraid of more

What has the past five years taught us about the merits and demerits of government by a coalition rather than a single party ? Coalition government is not unprecedented in the UK, but the 2010 coming together the Conservative and Liberal Democrats was the first governing coalition since 1945 and certainly made things more interesting for political analysts and commentators. I think the obvious lesson that might be learned is that coalitions threaten to undermine electoral accountability. When a single party is in government then, if they do not fulfil their manifesto promises, or at least attempt to, then one would expect them to be voted out in the next election. In the case of a coalition, however, there was no ‘coalition manifesto’ prior to the 2010 election. The coalition agreement necessarily involved a certain amount of compromise between the two parties involved and, as such, some of the policies that have been implemented by the government would have been a surprise to either party before the election. One of the clearest cases of this is probably over university tuition fees. Many Liberal Democrat candidates pledged before the 2010 election to oppose any further fee rises yet they were part of a government that allowed them to almost treble to £9,000pa. Had they been a single government, this would be a clear betrayal of their mandate. As it is, they can say that it was the Tories’ doing, rather than their own (though I suspect that many voters won’t forgive them anyway). The problem long associated with coalition government is that policies get decided in back room deals between party ...

Reflective Democracy (Oxford Political Theory) - Robert E. Goodin 17/02/2015

Reflecting on Reflective Democracy

Reflective Democracy (Oxford Political Theory) - Robert E. Goodin First of all, I should say that this book is a serious piece of scholarship, with much of its content previously published in or adapted from articles in several academic journals. It is most definitely NOT a piece of ‘popular philosophy’ or aimed at the general educated reader. If you’re not a student of either political science or philosophy, then it almost certainly isn’t really for you, and that’s probably all you really need to know by way of review. With this ‘health warning’ out of the way, I’ll say a bit more in case any of you are interested or simply curious. The motivating thought behind Reflective Democracy is that people’s preferences need not always be respected, particularly for example when they are uninformed or otherwise unreflective. Goodin argues that this is also true of democratic preferences. An ideal democratic procedure does not simply count and aggregate ‘brute’ preferences, but should seek to respond to settled, considered, or reflective preferences. While most would hopefully agree that this is a worthy aspiration, the crucial question is how to improve the quality of democratic inputs. The recently-popular answer has been that democracy should be more deliberative – that is, it should not simply be about votes, but about an exchange of reasons or arguments. The majority should win, not simply because they have force of numbers on their side, but because theirs is backed (presumably) with the strongest or most persuasive arguments. Further, while ...

Your Resolutions For 2015 09/01/2015

Making the best of it...

Your Resolutions For 2015 2014 was a hectic year in many ways. In May I was offered a new job, with a promotion, but it meant moving the length of the country (from Stirling to Southampton), which was far more stressful than I’d imagined. The move took place in September and, as I write (January 2015), we’re still paying both rent in Southampton and a mortgage in Stirling – that should soon be over, but only thanks to taking a significant hit on the price of our old house. To be honest, had I known how things would go, I may not have taken the job. However, my plans for 2015 basically boil down to making the best of the situation. 1) Get (back) on the property ladder" I’m still a homeowner now, technically, albeit that I no longer live in the home I own. We were lucky to find a nice house, close to work, with friendly landlords. Nonetheless, my plan for 2015 includes completing the sale of our old house and, if we can find somewhere suitable, buying again. No guarantees on this because Southampton is considerably more expensive than Stirling and we’ve not had much chance to explore but, after 2-3 years of homeownership, I don’t like being a tenant again. 2) Focus on what’s important Losing money on our old house is a kick in the teeth, given that we knew our next home would be smaller and more expensive anyway. However, it’s only money – there are far worse things to lose, as anyone who’s lost a loved one can attest. My partner and I actually have pretty cheap tastes, due to years of being students, ...

What Is Your Favourite Christmas Song/Carol 12/12/2013

Had to pick two, doubt you've heard of either

What Is Your Favourite Christmas Song/Carol It’s hard for me to pick a favourite Christmas song. All the obvious choices, even if nice in moderation, are ruined by over-familiarity. I have a few ‘alternative’ Christmas compilations, my favourite of which is probably the one by the Barenaked Ladies, but even that grates a bit after repeated plays. Instead, I thought I’d focus on two less-Christmassy Christmas songs, which manage to keep their place on my playlist all year round. Yes, two, because I couldn’t decide between them. And both are songs about Christmas, even if not traditionally Christmassy in spirit, so that I think makes them count. First, ‘Underwater Christmas’ by the band Spleen. To be honest, I knew next to nothing about this band until a moment ago. I bought the album Little Scratches years ago, knowing nothing about them, just because a local record shop were practically giving it away (£1.99). Some online research reveals that the man behind it, Rob Ellis, has worked as musician and producer with artists including PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull and Placebo, as well as releasing three albums with/as Spleen and recording under the name ‘Christmas’ too. Like the rest of the album, ‘Underwater Christmas’ is pretty difficult to describe or compare to anything else I know. I suppose it can be broadly categorised as ambient/experimental rock, with spoken word accompaniment. It’s a bit hit-and-miss but this is one song that, as I said, made it to my playlist and stays there. It’s almost claustrophobic in ...

Tablet Buying Guide: Your top 5 tips 03/11/2013

Scottish Tablet

Tablet Buying Guide: Your top 5 tips Tablet is a traditional Scottish confectionary, somewhat like fudge (with which it’s sometimes confused), but harder, without being too hard. It’s gritty or crumbly, but should have a melt-in-the-mouth texture. Its exact consistency will, of course, depend on the recipe used. Many small-scale manufacturers use traditional recipes, whereas commercially mass-produced tablet isn’t quite the same (though it may be more to some people’s tastes). Tablet is also often flavoured and added ingredients, such as alcohol or nuts, can affect the taste and consistency. Like any confectionary, tablet should be enjoyed in moderation, but it’s often served at formal occasions, such as weddings or banquets, and makes a fine gift. With the timing of this category, I’ll assume the focus is on buying for Christmas, but it’s suitable for other occasions at any time of the year. So, without further ado, here are my top five tips: "Check the flavour." As well as the traditional plain/butter flavour, tablet is available with a wide range of flavours, including vanilla, ginger, caramel, walnut and various alcoholic flavours (whisky, brandy, Irish cream). If buying for others, it’s important to know what they like – no point buying whisky flavour if they can’t stand whisky! "Check the ingredients." It’s also important to check whether your intended recipient has any allergies or food intolerances. Since traditional tablet contains butter and condensed milk, it’s not suitable for those with dairy ...

Organ Donation: Opt-In or Opt-Out? 23/07/2013

Opting for Opt-Out

Organ Donation: Opt-In or Opt-Out? The Welsh Assembly recently voted to change from an opt-in system of donation to an opt-out system. The rest of the UK currently operates an opt-in system, according to which an individual’s organs are not deemed available for transplantation unless they (or their next of kin) explicitly authorise this. The opt-out system changes this default: an individual’s organs are considered available for posthumous transplantation, unless the individual (or their next of kin) has objected to this. Opt-out systems are nothing new – such systems are in place in many European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Norway, Portugal, and Spain. In 2008 Gordon Brown commissioned the Organ Donation Taskforce to consider adopting such a system in the UK generally. The Taskforce’s recommendation was that such a move was unnecessary, since there was scope to increase donation rates through other means (though this verdict received some criticism). The five years since have seen a rise in donation rates, though the Welsh have decided to go a step further and introduce an opt-out system. I think an opt-out system is preferable to an opt-in one for several reasons. First, surveys frequently find that the vast majority of people are in favour of organ donation. It makes sense, I believe, for the default to be in line with most people’s wishes. Second, though related to this, this move will likely increase donation rates. While numbers on the donor register have risen, many of those in favour of ...
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