30 November 2021

PolicyViz interview

The real reason to write a book is to do interviews.

I’ve long noticed that I know the basic arguments of many books I’ve never read, because of the interviews authors gave arising from the book.

So I was very excited to talk about the Better Posters book with to Jon Schwabish (author of the excellent Better Data Visualizations, which I reviewed here) on the PolicyViz podcast. The episode is now available wherever you listen to podcasts!

Jon is a great person to talk to, and his questions got me thinking about some new topics that I hadn’t considered before.

This season, Jon has been experimenting with a video version of the podcast. I already knew of my bad speaking habits as an interviewer on audio (I go on tangents way to easily, I start sentences without knowing where they’ll land), but now I get to see entirely new bad habits (looking away from the camera, shifting my weight).

I mean seriously, why am I looking to my right so much? There’s nothing there...

If you are not interested in my voice or my face (and I can’t say I’d blame you), the show notes boast a complete transcript.

External links

PolicyViz podcast Episode #206: Zen Faulkes show notes 

22 November 2021

UK eyes new crustacean legislation

The Guardian is reporting that there is the potential new animal welfare regulations that would affect decapod crustaceans and cephalopods. The London School of Economics, whose report is being used to justify the move, seems rather more confident than The Guardian and is basically saying this is a done deal and that it will happen.

I am a little concerned by the backstory here, particularly cased on this:

The study, conducted by experts from the London School of Economics (LSE) concluded there was “strong scientific evidence decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs are sentient”. ...

Zac Goldsmith, the animal welfare minister, said: “The UK has always led the way on animal welfare and our action plan for animal welfare goes even further by setting out our plans to bring in some of the strongest protections in the world for pets, livestock and wild animals.

“The animal welfare sentience bill provides a crucial assurance that animal wellbeing is rightly considered when developing new laws. The science is now clear that crustaceans and molluscs can feel pain and therefore it is only right they are covered by this vital piece of legislation.”

See, I want to know what Minister Goldsmith knows that I don’t. Because I follow scientific literature on this topic and the science on whether crustaceans “feel pain” is nowhere near as clear as Goldsmith claims. We are only barely getting a handle on whether crustaceans have nociceptors,

And “sentience”? Yeah, I don’t think there is a generally agree upon set of criteria for that, either.

A cursory glance at the London School of Economics report shows that none of the authors have stated experience in crustacean biology. (One studies cephalopod cognition.) A major review on this topic by Diggles (2018) is not included. Some of the references in the report are dated 2021, so leaving out a 2018 paper is a puzzling omission. 

But at first blush, this report looks more comprehensive than the documents used to argue for legislation in Switzerland. But I’ve only glanced at it so far, and will need some more time to read in detail.


Diggles BK. 2018. Review of some scientific issues related to crustacean welfare. ICES Journal of Marine Science: fsy058. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy058

Related posts

Switzerland’s lobster laws are not paragons of science-based policy

External links

Boiling of live lobsters could be banned in UK under proposed legislation

Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans

Octopuses, crabs and lobsters to be recognised as sentient beings under UK law following LSE report findings

19 November 2021

Do not make professors guess a student’s childhood

I was filling in recommendation forms for students today, and was gobsmacked by this question:

English Competency: For students whose first language is not English, please rank the applicant’s ability and comment on the applicant’s English competency in the box provided below.

Wow, that’s a bad question. Wait, let me upgrade that. That’s a freaking terrible question.

Why am I only asked to assess the English competency of students “whose first language is not English”? I know a lot of students who are native speakers whose linguistic skills are not good.

More to the point, how can I possibly know what a student’s first language is?

Maybe a student will mention this to me, but probably not. It’s not in a student’s records for a class. I am quite confident it is not part of a student’s university record.

(And this was a non-optional part of a form, which is also weird, because presumably I am supposed to skip it for native English speakers?)

The only way anyone could complete this part of the form is by making assumptions. So this question is code for:

“Does this student speak with an accent?”

“Does this student’s name look European?”

“Does this person have black or brown skin?”

The question singles out some people as needing extra “assessment”, but it’s based on the recommender’s stereotypes about who a “non native English speaker” is.

If you’re going to ask a question about language proficiency, ask, “Rate this applicant’s proficiency in communication” for every single applicant. Don’t even mention the language. Because there are some people who will never speak English who should be afforded the opportunity to have an education. (I’,m thinking of people who sign, for one.)

Update, 23 November 2021: In this case, a happy ending! The program changed the question so that every recommender is simply asked to comment on language skills for every applicant.

08 November 2021

The University of Austin: Stop it, you’re just embarassing yourself.

 Spotted on Twitter this morning (hat tip to Michael Hendricks):

We got sick of complaining about how broken higher education is. So we decided to do something about it. Announcing a new university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth::

It offers no degrees. It has no accreditation. This is its physical location:

REsidential house in Austin Texas that does not look like a university campus.

But they offer “Forbidden courses” where students can have “spirited discussions” about “provocative questions.”

Presumably for a tuition fee. Since this wouldn’t lead to any degree or course credits, not at all clear why would a student do this when they can just have an drunken argument in any bar with “provocative questions.”

Having been through the creation of a new university (in Texas, no less), I can say with confidence:

This is trash.

This is probably one of two things.

One possibility is that it’s a wild mix of huge egos and a cash grab. It will come to nothing besides  separating a few suckers from their money. It reminds me of a “university” created by a former US president that was sued and gave out a settlement of $25 million

Or maybe it’s a pure criminal operation

Everything about this stinks like the kind of stink that make you involuntarily gag and fight the urge to vomit.

Update: Sarah Jones reminds me:

I’m not convinced this experiment is going to last, but they seem to have money and as a general rule I think it’s wise to take the right as seriously as it takes itself.

This is true. Being badly wrong has not prevented many ideas from having amazing longevity.