Feminist doors

I have a tendency to get annoyed when men instead on holding the door open for me even when it is obviously easier for me to hold it for them. While I appreciate that it is clearly very well intentioned, and clearly beats having it slammed in my face, I am frustrated by the arbitrariness and the idea that I am incapable of holding a door for longer than two seconds.

Today at work I opened to door for a male colleague without thinking. Another male colleague then started talking about how I was one of the few ladies in the building (i.e. a female gentleman) because I was polite enough to hold the door for someone else. My first thought was how refreshing this attitude was, but it also got me thinking about the idea of a female gentleman, as opposed to a generally polite person. Also, I know a lot of feminists have a problem with the woman/lady distinction. I get the point that it can be read as suggesting that some women are worth more than others, but if we have a conception of a gentleman as a kind, polite, helpful man, why not have a female equivalent?

A year in review

In a vague attempt to start blogging again, here is a round up of 2011 in pictures, without any people 🙂
Mead making

A snowy Inch park

Holyrood Park chapel

Sunset over St Pancras

Regent's Canal

Afternoon tea in Brighton

One of many, many cakes

Firbush Point

House for an Art Lover, Glasgow

We built a kitchen

Edinburgh Castle at sunset

A sunny day in Portobello

Vienna

The other side of Holyrood Park

The Cam

Bonnybrook Beach, British Columbia

Summertime, and the living is easy

So, for my (second) last free summer, I’m heading up to Edinburgh for three months. Much as I love London, after (by then) almost six years here I kind of need a break, not to mention the fact I am desperately sick of the East Coast Mainline. The past weekend up there reminded me that, as well as a loving boyfriend, I also have a lot of friends up there that I’m going to enjoy spending more time with. However, I really want to make the most of it, so I’m coming up with a to-do list. What I’m looking for is both more things for the list and people who are up for doing them with me.

Festival based

  • Go to at least one event at each festival I’ll be in town for (so far that’s the Film, International, Fringe, Jazz & Blues, Art, Military Tattoo and Book)
  • Go to one event a day during the Fringe (including street performers)
  • Volunteer for at least one event
  • Moan at tourists in true local style

Food based

  • Spend too much in Peckhams/ the Cheese Shop/ Demijohns and such like
  • Have a barbecue/picnic on the Meadows
  • Go for brunch at Toast

Touristy

  • Finally go to Edinburgh castle
  • Go on the Royal Yacht Brittania
  • See sunrise/sunset from Arthur’s Seat
  • Go to Holyrood House

Moving beyond touristy

  • Go to Portobello
  • Go to Cramond Island
  • Cycle along the Water of Leith
  • Organise a trip to Gilmerton Cove
  • Go walking around Rosslyn and go to the castle there
  • Join a knitting group
  • Watch an Auld Reekie Roller Girls bout

Dance

  • Go to Bluez Cruize
  • Go to a Newcastle event (e.g. Lindy Moves/Blues Mmoves/both)
  • Get a guest DJ slot at the Counting House on a Wednesday

The Rights’ Future

This is where I suspect my academic energies are going to be focussed for the next few months, and I’m incredibly excited. Conor Gearty, profesor of human rights law at LSE, is starting a collaborative project called the The Rights’ Future, which will culminate in a book next February. Each Monday he will post an essay, collect responses online over the week, and publish a response on the Friday. A book formed from the essays and responses will be launched at the LSE literature festival.

Professor Gearty is fantastic. He gave my first year human rights law lectures at LSE, and was an incredibly engaging speaker. He’s extremely intelligent and has probably done more for human rights as an academic discipline in the past decade than anyone else. He’s also rather vocal about his social-political opinions (as seen here at 4.25 at the Rights’ Future launch).

I’m hoping to be able to follow this project thoroughly, and respond as much as possible; I’d recommend that anyone with an interest in human rights, whether academic, professional or social, also reads what he has to say. So far only his manifesto for the project has been published, which goes as follows:

  1. Human rights are social democratic politics for our post-political age.
  2. Human rights need to be true even if we have to make them so.
  3. Realising human rights must always be emancipatory and securing them might sometimes be revolutionary.
  4. Labour rights are essential to human rights.
  5. The great religions are more friend than foe to human rights.
  6. In taming counter-terrorism law human rights has the chance to renew its soul.
  7. Rights are for more than humans.
  8. The powerful should be made to need human rights but they should never like them.
  9. Human rights are for people not peoples.
  10. Lawyers are wonderful for human rights – but as supporting actors, not the main act.

I could ramble on for hours about any of these, but two points interest me especially right now. At point 1, and in the video above, he suggests that modern culture has been estranged from the social democratic vision, which has been forsaken for a market culture. I think this may be a comment on pre-crisis culture, as I would wonder whether this is still true now. It is certainly a fairly left wing point, and one I would tend to agree with, although I suspect the social democratic vision was never truly established above a markets culture (and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive concepts). I’m also wondering whether human rights can only exist and be supported in a purely social democratic culture; I think rights, although to a more limited extent, also have their role in a market society in establishing the freedom of action of each market player.

The second point, that rights may need to be ‘made’ true, also fascinates me. This essentially boils down to the question of whether rights are pre-existent, or an ideal that we should be trying to establish. Many ‘fundamental’ rights have been argued for (very well) as pre-existent for a modern democratic society to exist (I’m thinking here of J.S. Mill), although the concept of rights nowadays has expanded to include rights that are hard to fit into a model that requires rights for a functioning democratic society. This is especially true if Preofessor Gearty wants to include labour rights, as he says in point 4.

The collaborative authorship dimension here is also, to be somewhat less academic, really cool. It’s similar to what was tried with Code 2.0, although that was wiki-based rather than the comments system I think Rights’ Future will be using. Habermas and several other writers have discussed the requirement of a public discourse for a true democratic society. This project is a perfect example of how modern communications technologies can be used for this. I’m hoping it will expand beyond a simple reply system, and others will blog and discuss Professor Gearty’s essays.

I can’t wait to get my teeth into this, and hopefully I’ll be able to post some of the interesting points (and my suggestions) here.

The Lindy Equation

Warning – massive lindy nerd-out ahead

So it would seem that sometimes when I’m dancing not all of my brain will be focussing on that dance (as a matter of fact, I’ve sometimes found that I dance better when I’m not thinking about it). The other day while out dancing my mind was working on something I’d been thinking about for a while; just how much of dancing was to do with physics. After three or four songs worth of consideration, I came up with a basic ratio that I then put on Facebook as:

Lindy is 50% Newtonian physics, 30% musicality and 20% magic

Suffice to say this generated a fair amount of discussion, but I felt I didn’t properly explain what I meant by this and why I’d assigned each aspect that proportion. Obviously I don’t expect everyone to agree with the proportion I give each one, and I guess a few people will think there are more/less/entirely different parts to it. It just seemed too good a discussion not to have.

50% Newtonian physics
To my mind, a lot of leading and following has to do with basic physics. A friend once said that a good follow is a frictionless particle. When a follow is sent in a certain direction they* should keep going in that direction until something stops them. One of the main parts of following is using momentum, or your lead has to put far more work in to sending you somewhere, and you just won’t travel as far (although there is something to be said for not using the momentum quite as the lead intended it, just as long as you still use it). Similarly, if there’s no lead, don’t go anywhere. Lindy is fundamentally a partnered led dance, and so to dance it you need a follow who is prepared to do what the lead leads.

Besides (although still linked to) the lead-follow context, a lot of moves only work because of the physics of the connection; sugarpushes work because once you’ve triple-stepped into each other, there’s nowhere to go but backwards. Similarly, a follow comes back in from a swingout because the force from the lead bringing her in is greater than the momentum sending her out.

30% musicality

There was a fair amount of discussion on Facebook about whether musicality or physics was more important to lindy. Without doubt musicality is crucial to dancing (or at least listening to music is crucial to dancing, musicality is crucial to dancing well), but this post is specifically about lindy. You can dance with a partner without any leading, but in my opinion for it to be lindy there needs to be a lead and a follow (although there may be a place for what I call 80-20 leading). Musicality is needed for dancing, but for the subset of dancing known as lindy, physics is also crucial.

If physics is being able to send a follow out, musicality is doing it on the right beat of the music (although there’s some debate as to whether this would always be on the same beat in every song). Musicality means that you’re using the music as more than just a metronome for your dancing, but listening to every part of the song, reacting to it and incorporating that into the way you dance. Recognising the breaks in a song, reacting to changes in the music, incorporating different phrases; if lead-follow is the science of lindy, musicality is the art (for me a lot of things come down to a mixture of science and art). Musicality happens when you stop just memorising footwork and start mixing together what you learned in class with how you used to react to music before you started taking classes. Musicality is where the fun starts.

20% magic

Obviously I don’t mean magic in the literal sense. I mean the bit of lindy I can’t quite name properly; when something just works, when a dance is massive amounts of fun even when you don’t quite know why, the atmosphere in a room full of dancers having one hell of a good time (I can think of a few people who would call this psychology). It’s the bit that leaves you thoroughly addicted to dancing 🙂

* gendered pronouns intentionally omitted

Rose and almond blondies

Yesterday was my birthday, and in true dancer style I made plenty of cake for dancing in the evening. As well as my usual brownies, I wanted to start playing about with the rosewater I got in Damascus, so started adapting a blondie recipe I had. There seem to be two interpretations of the word ‘blondie’; either brownies made with white chocolate, or vaguely butterscotch flavoured bars. These are the white chocolate version. They went down really well, although next time I would add more almonds. The quantity here is what I should have added, rather than what I actually put in.

Rose and Almond blondies
Adapted from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook.

  • 150g white chocolate, chopped
  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons rosewater
  • 200g plain flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 120g almonds, finely chopped
  1. Preheat oven to 170C/gas 3, and grease/line a brownie tin.
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate.
  3. Take off the heat, then add sugar and stir until well mixed. This took me a while; try folding it in, as just stirring meant it all stayed quite separated.
  4. Add the eggs, vanilla and rosewater. Stir quickly to stop the eggs scrambling (or just work slowly).
  5. Add the flour and salt and mix well.
  6. Stir in the almonds.
  7. Pour into the tin, and spread out (it’ll be quite a thick mixture, and relatively thinly spread).
  8. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the centre is soft, but still relatively firm. Even when cooled, they’ll be quite chewy.

Samantha’s Cowboy Cookies

Samantha is my six year old cousin and, like most kids that age, she’s extremely cute, friendly, and sometimes has a problem with her personal pronouns. What Samantha has that makes her far cooler than other kids her age, however, is an amazing cookie recipe. She got this recipe on a postcard and last time I saw her we made them. Oats, chocolate and coconut! If she hadn’t already earned my love by being family, these cookies would have been enough to do it. She let me have her recipe in return for the recipe for my raspberry brownies; if she’s doing recipe swaps at five, she’s got a bright future ahead of her.

  • 2 cups/300g flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 cup/225g butter
  • ½ cup/113g caster sugar
  • 1 ½ cup/263g brown sugar
  • 300g chocolate chips
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups/180g oats
  • 1 ½ tsp vanilla
  • 150g dessicated coconut
  1. Cream butter and sugars together
  2. Add eggs, flour, salt and baking powder. Mix in well.
  3. Add vanilla, oats, coconut and chocolate chips, Mix again.
  4. Drop roughly tablespoon sized amounts onto a greased cookie sheet.
  5. Bake at 180C/gas mark 4 for 15-20 minutes.

Legislating new technologies

First of all, apologies for the intermission in blogging; I’ve been sidetracked with exams, travelling and dancing.

I’ve heard a few complaints recently about the lack of legislation governing new technologies, specifically new uses of the internet and new communications methods. While it would be convenient for a new set of laws to pop up as soon as a new technology becomes widely used, it can’t happen that way. It takes time for laws to develop around any new feature in society, but there are a few specific problems in relation to technology law.

The law will always lag behind new technologies. The entire point is that they’re new. The key issue is that most communications technologies do not suddenly spring up fully-formed. The most basic example is that the internet was not used by the public in the way it is now from the start; it was developed for file transfers between specific people and institutions. iPhones didn’t always have third party applications available, and because they’re third party it wasn’t possible to predict how these applications would work and be applied. Most of these technologies develop organically, and so there isn’t normally a single point where you can be sure they are fully formed and ready for a system of laws to be developed. More to the point, the English legal system doesn’t work like that; in a common law system, laws develop organically.

While legislation can be passed relatively quickly (for better or worse), how these laws are practically applied and the finer points will be decided by the courts, which happens over time. Legal cases will always take time to pass through the courts; the technology must be in place before anyone can be harmed by it, and then the case will pass through several courts before it reaches the Supreme Court, where the most important decisions are made. Due to this, the law on an issue will normally take at least a year to develop.

This is enhanced by a point made very well by Babbage. To become a judge and to some extent a legislator then a certain degree of expertise or wisdom is normally expected (political cynicism aside). These don’t happen overnight, and so MPs, Lords and Judges are normally older than the people using the technology, who will typically be younger members of the population. There is a grain of truth in the stereotype of judges, in that they are older men who are unlikely to use smartphones and the like. If they don’t understand these technologies, they are more likely to, in the best case, take longer to decide a case and, in the worst case, make flawed decisions due to not understanding the background. This will lead to more appeals, and a further extension in the time it takes for the law to develop.

Furthermore, a lot of the time rushed laws prove to be poorly drafted and poorly chosen laws. The typical example of this is the Dangerous Dogs Act in the 1990s, which happened after a spate of (publicised) dog attacks on young children. More recently, and possibly an even better example, is the recent concern over mephedrone and ‘legal highs’. The banning of mephedrone was due mostly to news coverage. Once one death occurred, any subsequent ones were more likely to be publicised, until there was a significant amount of stigma attached to the drug. Given the impact a new law can have on someone’s way of life, it needs to be carefully thought through. For laws to work fairly and without loopholes, they need to be drafted carefully. This will, again, require time and a considerable amount of expert consultation. MPs are unlikely to understand personally the workings of all new technologies; instead, they have the power to consult those who do.

Given these points, in most respects it’s better that for a short time after a technology emerges, there won’t be any specific laws governing it (although in most cases basic principles of law will apply and analogies can be drawn to other areas of law). During this time, how it is used will tend to stabilise and norms of use will generally develop. Once it is clearer how the technology will be used, more sensible laws can be made to govern it. During the time that the law isn’t in place, the other nodes of influence (norms, market and architecture) will still be in place to regulate its usage. While the law is normally considered to be the most legitimate control over usage, it is certainly not the only one.

Proportionate Harms

The ideas for this have been running around my head for a few weeks, but I think I have them in some kind of order now. I’m not trying to come up with any definite answers, but frame a few questions I’ve been thinking about recently.
At its very core, the basic principle behind Mill’s On Liberty, the Harm Principle, is that each person should have the freedom to do whatever they want, as long as it causes no harm to others. This is the heart of modern liberal philosophy, and generally the first principle I turn to when making a philosophical decision. Obviously, however, a principle this simple is going to require some expansion to apply in a lot of circumstances, especially when many people or factors are involved.

What counts as harm?
Firstly, not everyone is going to have the same concept of harm. Many people will think of purely physical or quantitative harm, e.g. ‘I will be injured’, or ‘I will be poorer’. On the other hand, there are many other factors that could be considered. Given that we are talking about liberty, some people will consider harm to their personal freedoms or human rights, such as right to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. These are relatively obvious examples that most people could subscribe to, but what happens when you get to social rights, such as the right to collective bargaining? Some people will consider the loss of these rights as causing real harm to them, whereas others will not believe it to be harm. Here the principle suddenly becomes less clear; the person choosing to act may not feel that they are causing harm, whereas the person affected by their actions may feel they have been harmed in quite a definite way. My initial reaction here would be that the action does breach the Harm Principle, as the person affected is, subjectively at least, feeling harm; harm is a subjective concept, so if you feel it, it must have happened. A more complex solution might be to weigh the liberty of the person acting against the harm felt by the person affected. However, this begins to suggest that, as not everyone acknowledges the type of harm, it is somehow less serious, or less important. This, along with the idea of ‘weighing’ the two beliefs, begins to add an element of subjectivity into what, until now, was a (mostly) subjective principle.

Proportionate harm
So far the assumption seems to have been that the acting and the harmed parties begin in a neutral position, with the acting party ending up better off and the harmed party worse off. This misses the scenario where the acting party is choosing to act to avoid or rectify some kind of harm to himself. Here, there is potential harm on both sides, and a balancing act is required; is the harm to acting party if he does not act greater or lesser than the potential harm to the harmed party if he does not act? Again, the most obvious solution to this is to balance the potential harms against both parties; whichever option causes the least harm is probably optimal. However, this again brings an element of objectivity into the equation. Unless both harms can be neutrally quantified, the parties are probably going to have different opinions of which option causes the most harm (presumably skewed towards which causes them the most harm).
This is where the concept of proportionality has crept into the law, most clearly in human rights law; the action must have a legitimate aim (here, the prevention of harm to the acting party) and the result must be proportionate to the harm caused to the other party. The problem here is that you will often have the different parties placing a different value on each of the rights or harms; the most prevalent example is placing different amounts of importance on freedom of speech and the right privacy.

Subjectivity v. objectivity
So far, the solution to these problems seems to be to weigh up the two potential options; where the action is taken and where the action is not taken. This takes the Harm Principle out of the almost purely subjective system, whereby it is causing harm to someone that must be avoided. To balance the two options fairly, you need an outside perspective on the two actions (the more legally minded will see this as where the courts come in). Suddenly this is less subjectively liberal, and the good of others must be considered. Furthermore, the subjective values both parties place on the harms/liberties caused must be balanced, again making the decision more objective. In making these balancing decisions, some kind of value must be placed on each of the harms caused, and one party is inevitably going to be left unhappy with the final outcome. While this is a pragmatic necessity (the other option is to spend all day debating it and not reaching a solution), the problem is that placing a different value on a harm to the person who is being harmed may in itself be a harm to that person; are you harming their own freedom of thought?

If there was a perfect solution to any of this the world would be a happier place. On a much larger scale, democracy is the closest we’ve come to placing a value on harms and rights in a large population. On an individual level, however, these problems are still going to come up on a regular basis. While almost everyone has the ability to think objectively to a greater or lesser extent, when it is the good of one person against another operating in a near-vacuum, with greatly differing opinions on the extent of the potential harms, I’m not sure it is possible to come up with a purely rational decision.

Peanut Butter and Nutella

A month or so ago I had a go at making my own peanut butter. This isn’t as impressive as it sounds, as it mostly involves just blending peanuts and adding salt and sugar (or honey in my case) to taste. Unfortunately I could only find salted peanuts in Tesco, so it turned out saltier than I wanted (I like slightly salty peanut butter, but this was a bit too much), although it still worked well when I made it into peanut butter biscuits. My blender is pretty small, so didn’t react too kindly to making almost 400g of peanut butter at once; I had to keep stopping it to let it cool down.

After this little experiment I wanted to try making more spreads, and recently Sally posted a recipe for making your own Nutella; it was just too perfect. I made it pretty much exactly to the original recipe, with the exception that I used chopped roasted hazelnuts, since it was all Tesco had. The original added a little vegetable oil, but mine is quite smooth anyway, so I probably wouldn’t use it again. It is a little grainy, but I think I prefer it that way, as it actually tastes of hazelnuts. I’d also quite like to try using dark chocolate, or maybe almonds instead of hazelnuts.

Home-made nutella
Adapted from Mini Sam Tan’s Kitchen:

  • 150g chopped roasted hazelnuts
  • 100g milk chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 2tbsp cocoa powder
  • 65g icing sugar
  1. Blend the hazelnuts until they form a very smooth oily paste (about 5 minutes)
  2. Add in the chocolate and vanilla and blend again.
  3. Add the cocoa and sugar and blend until smooth and completely mixed.

omnomNutella