Sunday, October 31, 2010

Beards, tweed, etc.

Simon Hoggart visited Cambridge last week and had dinner at Clare College.  He wrote this in Saturday's Guardian:
At least my double ticket took me to Cambridge, where I was giving a talk at Clare College. We dined in hall, where they still have a "high table", one foot above the undergraduates' level. We all had to stand while the fellows filed in and what a wondrous sight they made: stooped, bearded, often distracted as if the gong had called them away when they were on the very brink of discovering a cure for heart disease.

I occasionally wonder what happens when a young, ambitious chap becomes a don. Presumably at the age of 24 they are taken off to a special outfitters where they're told, "soon have you looking the part, sir! We'll just glue on this silly-looking beard, and get rid of all that hair on the top of your head. And pebbly 1930s glasses are all the rage now! A nice knobbly stick, sir? And these soft shoes are perfect for shuffling along …"

I suppose that the dons in that short transition stage between graduate student and ancient pedagogue are actually eating at home with their young families. Possibly.
Why the 'possibly'?  (And note also the emphasis on 'chaps' here; there are women Fellows in these colleges, although they may well be even less well represented at dinners than they are in the general composition of the Fellowship of many of these colleges.)  At home with their young families?  That's exactly where some of us are.  Others of us are still in the library, in an office marking essays, in a lab doing experiments, or just having a life outside of the college.

I emailed Simon to point out that he might, next time he is in town, come along for lunch.  He'd find, I imagine, a rather different crowd and, I think, would see a different face of the university: busy people running between lectures, labs, and supervisions; catching up with friends and gossip; doing college business; moaning about HE policy and the like.  Without the gong.  In fact, although we often think the best thing to do for visitors and guest is to take them to dinner, it does often give a lop-sided picture of what we're most of us up to most of the time.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quantifying pleasure

I should have read this before, but I've only just discovered J. C. Hall, 'Quantity of pleasure', PAS 67, 1966-7, 35-52 (JSTOR link here). I can't say I am immediately convinced but I did enjoy the suggestion of the following unit for pleasure comparison (p.44):
Suppose a boy, John, to have a taste for bull's eyes that is constant throughout the time we are concerned with, suppose one bull's eye of a given make of constant size to be available to him each hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and suppose that he is able, when they are so spaced, to eat up to twelve bull's eyes in a day without satiety setting in to any appreciable degree. These conditions presuppose that the ordering relations, including quality, are applicable to John's pleasure, at different times, in eating bull's eyes; otherwise one could not say that his taste was constant or say when satiety set in. There is therefore a class of recurrent experiences, guaranteed by the initial conditions as being equal in pleasure. If we could also find an operation analogous to addition, whereby the pleasure obtainable from two members of this class could be combined, we could then use any member of this class as a standard unit applicable to the measurement in terms of pleasure of as many of John's experiences (within the period covered by the initial conditions) as could be compared as being equal in pleasure to, or greater or less in pleasure than the eating of one bull's-eye under the spacing conditions laid down.
Those readers not au fait with traditional British sweets might appreciate learning that a 'bull's eye' is a minty boiled sweet, a bit like a humbug...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Weighing pleasures and pains

At Protagoras 356a8–c1 Socrates uses the metaphor of weighing to describe how we make choices between different possible courses of action on the basis of the pleasure or pain involved in each. He mentions three tests and gives a recommendation for each based on the outcome. We imagine a pair of scales that registers only which pan contains the heavier material: this is the pan that drops.  It does not give a calibrating value to the weight in each pan.

1. Weigh pleasures against pleasures (b3).

Here, choose the option with the most pleasures.  (Of two options pick the one that is the heavier; of more than two options pick the one that is heavier than every other option.)

2. Weigh pains against pains (b4).

Here, choose the option with the least pains.

The third, however, seems rather different:

3. Weigh pleasures against pains (b5).

Here, if pleasures outweigh pains then do this praxis. If pains outweigh pleasures then do not do this praxis.  (Let's leave aside for now whether this is a recommendation or a description of what people generally do anyway.)

It seems to me that the question settled by 3 is different from the questions addressed in 1 and 2. They are concerned with ranking options, all of which are apparently being considered as possible courses of action. In 3, however, it is being decided whether a course of action should be done or not taking into account that an action will likely involve both pleasures and pains.

Also, the combination of the three will not immediately generate the clear guidance that Socrates seems to want.

We can imagine the procedure as follows. A good maximiser first gathers up the pleasures and pains for a particular action and weighs the pleasures against the pains. Let us imagine the pleasures win out. That course of action is therefore given a recommendation. He will perhaps also consider other courses of action and retain all those for which their respective pleasures outweigh their pains. But now what does he do? He needs to rank the options in order to choose the one in which there is the greatest preponderance of pleasure over pain since he is a maximiser. But the procedures in 1 and 2 will not allow him to settle this question. Imagine two courses of action that are being considered: A and B. Both A and B have both pleasures and pains associated with them. For both A and B, moreover, it is the case that the pleasures outweigh the pains (so both pass the test in 3). But how will the good maximiser then choose between A and B? For example, course of action A may have more pleasure associated with it than course of actions B (A will beat B in test 1) but course of action A may also have more pains associated with it than course of action B (A will lose to B in test 2). The procedure as elaborated here will be unable to adjudicate between such cases since 1 and 2 only register the fact of one set of pleasures being greater than another or one set of pains being greater than another. They are unable to adjudicate between different degrees to which the pleasures of a given option outweigh its pains or, for that matter between different degrees to which the pains of a given option outweigh its pleasures. This is because both pleasures and pains are being considered to have positive mass, as it were. This is helpful because it allows the procedure in 3: pleasures can be weighed against pains. But it prevents us from considering the ‘net’ weight of a given course of action as being the combination of the positive value of pleasures and the negative value of pains.

For example, imagine that course A will produce 8 units of pleasure while course B will produce 6. (So A beats B in test 1.) But course A will produce 6 units of pain while B will produce 5. (So A loses to B in text 2.) Both course A and course B will pass test 3 since in both there is more pleasure than pain produced.

What is needed is a new procedure: a fourth test in which the pleasures of course A are combined with the pains of course B and weighed against the pleasures of course B combined with the pains of course A. The winning course of action is the one whose pleasures are in the heavier pan. (If PleasureA + PainB is greater than PleasureB + PainA, then PleasureA + PainB - PainA  is greater than PleasureB, and PleasureA - PainA  is greater than PleasureB – PainB.) (Denyer notes the need for such a procedure in his commentary ad 356b1 but I don’t think Socrates makes any explicit reference to it in the description here.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In praise of lower-league football

R (who is nearly 9) and I went again to see Cambridge United yesterday.  We managed to go quite a few times last season and, a but to my surprise, R is keen to go more often.  I have to say that I'm delighted.  It's not a cheap afternoon out (tickets for the 'Family stand' are £16 for an adult and £5 for a child) and, let's be honest, you will see better football if you spend the money of a subscription to Sky sports.  But on the other hand, there is something magical about the walk to the ground as gradually people all wearing replica shirts and scarves converge from the side streets on their way to the turnstiles.  And the walk home is just as lovely, even when you have lost, particularly later in the winter when it is already dark and you leave the floodlights behind.  (And yesterday we won 3-1.  Come on the Us!)

And given that only around 3000 people are there, you somehow feel as if your presence is important.  You have made a reasonable contibution to the support and the noise.  You can sit close enough to the pitch to hear the players swearing at one another.  You get recognised after only a few visits by the programme seller.  And the hot dogs are great.  (Probably they aren't really great, of course, but they taste good when you are there in the stands.)

Anyway, this is all working up towards a plug for next Saturday's game.  It's a 3 o'clock kick-off (as it should be) and it's the FA cup.  A tie vs. Lewes FC (of the Blue Square South) and it's a 'quid a kid' so there really is no excuse for not taking your child (under 10...) along.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rat girl

I'm reading Kristin Hersh's wonderful sort-of-autobiography, Rat Girl.

Here are Kristin and Tanya doing 'Red Shoes' in 2007:

And here they are as Throwing Muses doing the same song at Glastonbury in 1989:

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


This Movember, the month formerly known as November I’ve decided to donate my face to raising awareness about prostate cancer.  My donation and commitment is the growth of a moustache for the entire month of Movember.  This will make me look very silly.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. One man dies every hour from the disease in the UK. This is a cause that I feel passionately about and I’m asking you to support my efforts by making a donation to The Prostate Cancer Charity. To help, you can either: 

•  Click this link and donate online using your credit card or PayPal account .

The Prostate Cancer Charity will use the money raised by Movember for the development of programs related to awareness, public education, advocacy, support of those affected, and research into the prevention, detection, treatment and cure of prostate cancer.
For more details on how the funds raised from previous campaigns have been used and the impact Movember is having please visit

Thank you in advance for helping me to support men’s health. 

Monday, October 04, 2010

Plato, pleasure, pdf

I've just received the pdf offprint of my essay 'Plato on the pleasures and pains of knowing' that will appear in the next Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy.  You can find a link to it on my Faculty webpage.