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Thursday, 11 October 2018

Honest Remider: Some Dumb People Write for The Spinoff

When we were learning how to debate at school we got some advice which is... wrong. But we got it early enough and acted on it enough that we were basically the kind of debating team that would, if we were a soccer team instead, huddle around the ref and demand our own players get red cards for simulation. You see, what we were told is that you shouldn't put rebuttal in the leader's reply. What you're actually meant to do is present a biased adjudication... which is both indistinguishable to rebuttal and enormously presumptive.

 To illustrate what I mean, consider the following paragraph:
In war it is effective to target civilian populations. A key element of strategic decision making during conflict relates to the allocation of resources to areas most likely to result in successes. Without entertaining the full possibility of strategic options, especially opportunities, military command must be considered incompetent and at fault for negative outcomes.
Did that work for you? Perhaps this one instead:
The major purposes of the fourth wave feminist movement relate to the successful assertion of female interests and prominence of femininity in society. By campaigning to increase the number of women working in scientific and technical fields, promoting equitable access to social support and advocating for legal reform in key areas such as family law fourth wave feminists hope to improve the emotional and material standing of women.
No? What about:
When people complain about the data sharing scandals like that of Cambridge Analytica or leaks such as the Ashley Madison leak they typically evoke high-sounding concepts like "privacy", "liberty", "data ethics" or "security". The reality is that fostering an effective data market is crucial to achieving productivity reforms. For the developed world, development and other macroeconomists have highlighted productivity reform and growth as the major components of sustained economic progression. Without productivity improvement in important sectors of the economy, countries are ultimately unable to support increased standards of living leaving to a host of negative social outcomes such as disillusionment, mental illness and rabies.

What I'm talking about is probably a kind of enthymeme, which is a word I've been trying to insert into casual conversation these past two weeks. In all of these examples I have made some big claims which are problematic. I haven't written, for example, something like:
The contemporary hysteria surrounding overpopulation is largely misplaced. Demographic transition theory states that countries and the world as a whole experience a consistent pattern of fertility and mortality. Basically, the concern facing society in the next 100 years is not overpopulation but the collapse of society as we know it with the inversion of population pyramids. Ever since Bismarck developed the first welfare state in the late 1800s, the developed world has worked on an industrial version of the classic model: have lots of kids when you're young so that they can feed you when you're old. As societies like Japan and Germany age, demographers and economists have become increasingly concerned about when the carrying capacity of the working age population is exceeded by the retired/elderly populace. These concerns also apply in China which in these circles is described in terms like "the first country to get old before it gets rich".
Or, more famously:
The human jaw is a lot stronger than it needs to be and this is particularly pronounced in human males. A potential explanation for this biologically expensive feature is that sexual selection has acted to result in over-muscled mandibles. By "bulking" up the face, it's possible to sustain higher and different kinds of forces, which allows the face to be used in different fashions. 
Both sexual selection and the demographic transition theory are well supported positions and if you read the latter's Wikipedia article you'll notice most of the criticisms are irrelevant in the context of what I'm discussing. In the first three examples, the statements are problematic because quite aside from the level of evidence for each of the basic ideas there's not even an orthodoxy on these positions or, if there is, the idea I've quoted is heterodox. Just linking to, in this case completely arbitrary links, doesn't change this status. All it does is create the illusion of intellectual credibility.

You see, all five examples are really dodgy. Where's the reflection or even explanation of the key ideas? Is "sexual selection" something you can take just like that? What about the efficacy of attacking civilians in wars? Is that the only concern that exists? What does efficacy mean anyway? I've made some pretty big presumptions in all of these hypothetical arguments (none of which are completely unreasonable, I don't think, and generally only incidentally resemble my own beliefs1) but you're probably only going to notice them if you happen to disagree with what I'm presuming. The point is that there are all sorts of necessary attendant issues which I need to talk about, but I'm not.

Frankly, it's a bit like reporting on a survey without quoting standard errors or even response rates. Uncertainty exists in claims and the reason why statisticians try to quantify/assess uncertainty is the same reason why we hold that everyone should hold that ambition. Statisticians are lucky because usually they can just use a number or so, essayists tend not to have such a succinct statement to make but they've got to do it all the same...

Which is what brings me to this month's old Spinoff article I'm resurrecting for kicks (I wrote this in August... shh, don't tell):
A friendly reminder that reverse racism is still not a real thing
You're probably already rolling your eyes (because you just know they're not going to be pointing out how reverse racism is just ordinary, conventional racism).

Except, wait. Don't.

Instead laugh outrageously. Or cry unashamedly. I'm not sure which is the appropriate response.

You see, the examples that Chapman has turned to don't actually mention reverse racism. As far as her authors are concerned, they are talking about everyday, normal racism. They don't make it into another category that doesn't exist. They're just talking about something they see as being racist (which Chapman does not).

So, that's really dumb. And Chapman has to be dumb for writing it.

(Obligatory reminder that The Spinoff wiped its comments section for completely spurious reasons. This article will thus never be confronted.)

Notice also how Chapman completely uncritically accepts her links. There's no evaluation. There's no reflection. There's barely any introduction. There's not even any "do not read this sign" stuff... which is what I've really offered here. Look at it, the article only exists because they didn't let Chapman submit the headline and the links... you could strip out everything she wrote and it wouldn't add anything beyond the headline.

Moral: if you're going to introduce an idea, don't just take it on faith... confront, compare and contest. And if that's too hard, a brief aside that others disagree is a sufficient an overture to intellectual responsibility (although if doing so gets in the entire way of what you're writing... maybe don't write it).




1 For example, I really do think privacy is just about control. So much so that I wrote it into an assignment definition where we were obviously meant to use a more conventional definition. 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Why are Public Parks so Dark?

Auckland Domain at Night, View of the Winter Gardens
I was inspired to write this post after reading a Medium piece kind of about it... Why Are Public Parks So Dark? Read that first and get back to this post. Trigger Warning: if the word Feminist makes you roll your eyes, you will have sore eyes at the end of that piece.

There's a very simple reason why parks are dark at night... it's because they're not meant to be used at night. By anyone. They have the lighting that they do in the same way that New Zealand has speed cameras... physical manifestations of an intellectual recognition that people don't do what they're meant to.

There is, though, a big difference between speeding and using a park at night. Namely, you shouldn't be speeding but you should be using a park at night.

Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland Domain
Now, personally, I walk through the Domain at night all the time. Emily Place and Albert Park have seen my foot traffic after dark quite a lot too. And, for the most part, I don't think about the dangerous man round the corner or hiding in the bush. Frankly, you'd have to be a bit insane to attack me (unless you know me: I'm a complete wimp) since I'm extremely heavy and very tall (which means I don't look as spherical as in practice I am). And, in any case, for some of the routes in the Domain I carry a torch (since there is no lighting whatsoever between Lower Domain Drive and Parnell Station).

Walking through the Domain at night is actually really cool. I recommend that everyone tries it. If you are concerned about safety, probably stay close to the Museum but otherwise keep at it.

Lower Domain Drive, i.e. the Domain but not near the Museum
The thing is, one of the reasons why walking through the Domain at night is cool is because it's poorly lit. You get a nice interplay of what lighting there is. So that's another reason why parks are dark (I suppose it's the same underlying motivation as designing for pomp... see the Medium piece).

We might also wonder what a brightly lit park would look like. Obviously there are concerns about light pollution in general but also the impacts on the animals that live in the parks. And if we just lit the paths(not so helpful, I must confess, in the Domain... that's a pretty hardcore road above, right?) I think we run the risk of blinding pedestrians to those lurking in the margins (bright lights kill night vision). So, what would an appropriately lit park look like?

By the Winter Gardens
So far I've mentioned four things that we need to consider in our design process:
  1. parks are not meant to be used at night
  2. parks (can) look good at night with poor lighting
  3. parks are also for wildlife, not just people
  4. parks are made less safe by ruining night vision
There is obviously a big thing that's missing: why do we even have parks at all? Well, the short answer to that is that parks exist for people. Okay, so what? 

If parks are for people then points (1) and (2) are basically invalidated. Points (3) and (4) seen through this lens become something like tradeoffs that we're going to have to balance.

Now, obviously we're going to want to get some design experts in to solve this issue but I'm thinking if we made the official pathways reasonably bright we create access in the parks for people. And if we also had lights angling out away from the paths you'd make the night vision issue lesser (and possibly would allow night-time CCTV to be practicable) whilst still keeping the lighting broadly to the paths. So what about the animals? Well, the animals will not be using the paths that much... they are, after all, the least natural part of a well designed park (the Domain also has a bunch of roads, which is a poor design feature).

So, appropriately lighting parks may be difficult even ignoring beside the point design motivations. But what about the example used in the Medium piece?

The late Zaha Hadid's Bratislava Sky Park, praised by the Medium Author

This looks like it's going for brightly lit but it's also not what I would call a park. Like at all. I would call this a garden. Presumably the author means park in the sense of "Industrial Park" which is wildly misleading in context. For an actual park look at the Domain:

Auckland Domain from Grafton Road