09/26/14

The Utility Animal


In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

09/26/14

Examined Lives


Examined LivesThought and deed. Thought and life. How does a person’s life, their upbringing, their daily toil affect their deepest thoughts, their beliefs, faith and passions?

And as outsiders looking in, can we understand a person’s thinking by examining their lives? Can we understand their philosophy that way?

I don’t know. Biographies describe the events of a person’s life, but cannot look into their innermost thoughts. Modern biographies told in conjunction with living people as collaborators may pull the curtains up, letting us see what they want us to see. But dead people?

Most lives are measured in arbitrary milestones that mark various transitions on the roads of our lives. Our tenth birthday. Or thirtieth. Sixtieth. First kiss, Last girl/boyfriend. First car. 100,00th kilometre on the odometer. Fifth anniversary. Tenth. First job, Last job. And so on. Do these events define a person, or are they just convenient places on which to hang memories or to craft stories that reflect the bigger picture?

Most of the biographies I’ve read, most of those that still sit on my bookshelves, follow the predictable path through their subject’s life: birth, childhood, teens… building the story through the stages of life until the focal period is reached – Shakespeare’s writing prime, Darwin’s epiphany before he wrote Origin, Einstein’s period of cosmological insight, Patton’s WWII activities, Nixon’s presidency, Hudson set adrift on the bay – there’s always a particular someplace the author wants to take us. Someplace that every other line in the book leads to; someplace that justifies all the rest of the writing.

Biographies are, too, interpretations; a form of storytelling designed to lift or tear down the subject for the audience. To reaffirm or demolish the image others (and history) have built around them. And to shore that view up through the bricks and mortar of fact and (allegedly) objective data.

Most of my biographies are about scientists, politicians, kings and queens, writers, warriors, explorers. Very few seem to be about philosophers (Montaigne excepted). Which is one reason I picked up James Miller’s 2011 book, Examined Lives, in which he looks at twelve philosophers – not just who they were and how they lived, but how that influenced what they thought. I wanted to flesh out my rather thin knowledge about these people: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche.

(You might note that my happy discovery of Montaigne among them helped incur my interest in the rest…). Yes, they are all men, all Western philosophers, and it’s a very personal selection, not entirely representative of the long trends and history of Western philosophy. Miller explains why he chose them, why he wrote this book, Examined Lives, and why philosophy is important to us today, in this radio interview:

Surely we can’t know them through fully biography alone; only know of them. But does knowing what Descartes ate, or where Montaigne wrote, or when Nietzsche went for his daily walks help us understand their thinking? Perhaps, if a causal link can be demonstrated (and that events and thoughts are not simply synchronistic) we can connect the dots. Miller helps us do that.

Continue reading

09/24/14

Extra Virginity


Extra VirginityFor some time before I got this book, I’ve been aware that there is more to olive oil than meets the eye. Or tongue. How much more really was startling. When I started reading Tom Mueller’s 2012 book, Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, I was simply amazed at how little I really knew about the stuff (and of course you already know how much I love learning new things).

Recently, the good folks at the Collingwood Olive Oil Company (on St. Marie St) gave us a brief introduction and tasting of real extra-virgin olive oils (and continue to educate my palette every time I encounter them)*.

That’s a key step: tasting the good stuff. Once you do, tasting the usual supermarket oil seems like drinking 10W-40. You can’t go back.

When you sample real, fresh extra virgin olive oil, you wake up to an entirely new taste sensation. It’s not just a lubricant: there are flavours here, a multitude of them: rich, delicate, earthy, vegetal, crisp, citrus, peppery… That’s when you realize that, like you discovered with good wine and premium tequila, there are finer oil products than you’ve been buying at the supermarket and it’s time to learn about them. Thus begins your journey into this new world.

That journey, by the way, isn’t inexpensive. Quality comes with a price. Be prepared to pay premium prices for premium, authentic products. But, like premium 100% agave tequila, it’s worth it.

My relationship with olive oil started like yours probably did: buying olive oil in supermarkets, not really knowing what the various terms meant (what exactly does “extra virgin” mean?) or how to judge the difference between mediocre and quality oils. Picking brands by labels or familiarity or price. Not appreciating that olive oil is not the same as canola or sunflower or corn oil. Not really noticing a difference in flavour or aroma between them.

Muller writes on his website that what we expect from an oil’s taste may not be telling us which is best:

Bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of an oil’s healthfulness. Sweetness and butteriness are often not… Don’t be put off by bitterness or pungency – remember that these are usually indicators of the presence of healthful antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and other healthful “minor components” of top-quality olive oil – unless one of these characteristics is overwhelming and disproportionate to the others.

(His website is mirrored at Truth in Olive Oil)
Continue reading

09/23/14

The Trolley Problem


The Trolley ProblemI had read about the “trolley problem” in the past, but not given it much thought until recently when I saw Thomas Cathcart’s little book of that name in the philosophy section of an Indigo bookstore. It’s subtitled, “Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the bridge? A Philosophical Conundrum.”

I, of course, was so intrigued I had to buy it. I have read others of Cathcart’s books and liked his work in introducing/popularizing philosophical concepts.

The original trolley problem is a thought experiment that goes like this, as Wikipedia puts it:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

Continue reading

09/22/14

The Forgotten Gulag


The Ameerican Individualist reviewIn the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Gulag: A History, she ponders why the “crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction to the crimes of Hitler.” Yet Stalin’s actions and policies killed millions more than the Nazis. Maybe it’s because the USSR wrapped itself in as much secrecy as it could muster for so long. Maybe it’s because the Soviet camps were so far removed from sight and never received the pictorial and media coverage the Nazi camps received.*

Maybe it’s because during the Cold War, the West was disinclined to care about the welfare of Soviet citizens. Or maybe Applebaum is projecting her own right-wing American bias on history. She grumbles about Western tourists buying Soviet regalia when Communism fell, and Western youths wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts without any sense of the horror that symbol meant for millions.

Blogger Bhavya Ketan represents this clouded view when he wrote a review of Applebaum’s book:

What was the Gulag? I never heard of it. Though the famous Indian anti-communist writer Sita Ram Goel, in his biography ‘How I became a Hindu’, defined the erstwhile Soviet Union as a slave empire, I couldn’t fully understand what he exactly meant. There are many people who still don’t know about the slavery that was practiced in Russia between 1920s and 1980s. And what is more shocking? This gross ignorance, about the human rights in the world’s largest country, exists not only in the developing nations but also in the developed states.

Even today, with so many new books on the Soviet union on the market, with Soviet-era archives open to historians and authors, there’s still a mist that occludes our understanding of the time. We only get occasional glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain and most of that is focused on the major players – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and other leaders.

Continue reading

09/21/14

No Data Are Better Than Bad Data


Avoid bias
The full name of an article I read today is, “The Fallacy of Online Surveys: No Data Are Better Than Bad Data.” It’s from 2010 and very good. You can find it on the Responsive Management website. It makes some key points about the invalidity of online surveys:

  • For a study to be unbiased, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance of participating.
  • When online surveys are accessible to anyone who visits a website, the researcher has no control over sample selection. These self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.
  • Non-response bias in online surveys is complicated by the most egregious form of self-selection. People who respond to a request to complete an online survey are likely to be more interested in or enthusiastic about the topic and therefore more willing to complete the survey, which biases the results.
  • Unless specific technical steps are taken with the survey to prevent it, people who have a vested interest in survey results can complete an online survey multiple times and urge others to complete the survey in order to influence the results.
  • Because of the inability to control who has access to online surveys, there is no way to verify who responds to them — who they are, their demographic background, their location, and so on.

I’ve said this all before. The article concludes:

As a result of these problems, obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.

There’s also a good slide show on internet surveys here that goes over the basics presented in the article above. A 2008 paper addressed just issue with online surveys: self-selection. The author, Jelke Bethlehem, wrote:

…web surveys are a fast, cheap and attractive means of collecting large amounts of data. Not surprisingly, many survey organisations have implemented such surveys. However, the question is whether a web survey is also attractive from a quality point of view, because there are methodological problems. These problems are caused by using the Internet as a selection instrument for respondents.
This paper shows that the quality of web surveys may be seriously affected by these problems, making it difficult, if not impossible to make proper inference with respect to the target population of the survey. The two main causes of problems are under-coverage and self-selection.

The author concludes:

It was shown that self-selection can cause estimates of population characteristics to be biased. This seems to be similar to the effect of nonresponse in traditional probability sampling based surveys. However, it was shown that the bias in selfselection surveys can be substantially larger. Depending on the response rate in a web survey, the bias can in a worst case situation even be more than 13 times as large.

In other words: most online surveys are bunk. You might also recall I wrote about online surveys in past posts. I won’t repeat what I said then, but here are the links to those posts: