Tag Archives: philosophy

Things June 2015: Trolley problems, Crystal Maze, Car Review

Lesser known Trolley problems

Trolley problems are thought experiments in ethics in which one typically evaluates who one might sacrifice to save someone else, as well as whether inaction involves less culpability than action. They quite neatly distil certain ethical problems, but are also so extreme and implausible that it feels slightly uncomfortable to draw general conclusions from them.

I recall an interesting debate on the radio in which someone was proposing measures to protect endangered wild tigers (at some cost to some group of humans; I don’t remember exactly what), and she was given the following challenge: if you had a gun, and one of these endangered tigers was about to attack and kill a man, would you shoot the animal? “I don’t think that’s a very useful question,” she responded, “for example, what if that man had killed your daughter. Would you still choose to shoot the tiger then?” to which they responded: “Well that’s just silly.”

Anyway, here’s a nice collection of examples along those lines: Lesser known Trolley problems variations. For example:

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. Three of them are cannibalistic serial killers. One of them is a brilliant cancer researcher. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. She is a brilliant cannibalistic serial killing cancer researcher who only kills lesser cancer researchers. 14% of these researchers are Nazi-sympathizers, and 25% don’t use turning signals when they drive. Speaking of which, in this world, Hitler is still alive, but he’s dying of cancer.


Stop YouTube Autoplay

Most internet companies make money from advertising, and therefore (only slightly indirectly) from your attention. As a result, once they have your attention, they are desperate to keep it. That’s why you’ll see other articles heavily pushed at you when you finish reading one (or even when you’ve just started reading one, as that’s when most people will bail), why Spotify will do anything with its UI to trick you into listening to a never-ending stream of music rather than just what you chose, and why, most recently, YouTube has started automatically forwarding you from the end of your chosen video to the start of one that it has algorithmically guessed you might like (or are perhaps least likely to stop).

YouTube’s algorithm is pretty good, so this is a little bit like being provided with a bottomless bowl of nachos that’s difficult to stop eating from. In order to take the bowl away, you have to switch off the little switch at the top of the recommended videos list on the right, like so.


Review of a petrol car

I enjoy reviews in which Status quo bias is revealed by reviewing something with that bias reversed (I mentioned a couple in Things 130). In particular, we tend to take the disadvantages of existing technology for granted, so when a new technology has different disadvantages it can seem much worse. Here, Tesla Club Sweden review a petrol car.

One could hear the engine’s sound and the car’s whole body vibrated as if something was broken, but the seller assured us that everything was as it should. The car actually has an electric motor and a microscopically small battery, but they are only used to start the petrol engine – the electric motor does not drive the wheels. The petrol engine then uses a tank full of gasoline, a fossil liquid, to propel the car by exploding small drops of it. It is apparently the small explosions that you hear and feel when the engine is running.

Origin of the Crystal Maze

A lovely look back at how the Crystal Maze came about, and the logistics of filming the show.

We were going back and forth to Paris and one day they drove us to an industrial part of Paris and opened a warehouse door and there was a crystal dome. We said, “What are you doing with that?” They said, “We don’t don’t know, we just built it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” We said, “We’ll have that!”

GIF of the month

Helps if you’ve seen Pacific Rim, but not essential.

- Transmission ends

Things 122: Linda, Sledding Crow, Brand Promises as Modern Myths

Puzzle - The Linda Problem
I see this come up every few years, and get annoyed by it every time. Here’s a typical wording:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Most people get this wrong. Why?

Usually I follow up on a puzzle in the next edition, but this one is so annoying I’ll address it below, after these other things.

VideoCrow Sledding
The Atlantic has the perfect headline for this video: “Science Can Neither Explain Nor Deny the Awesomeness of this Sledding Crow.”

At the time of writing, their version of the video is down, but this one isn’t:

(Extended version with same amount of sledding but more corvid activity here)

LinkColour perception and language
Ever since reading 1984 I’ve been doubtful but curious about the extent to which language can influence the way we think or even perceive. In a brilliant couplet of articles about colour on Empirical Zeal, I found out about some really nice experiments that demonstrate a real (albeit small) effect, so I highly recommend reading both part 1 and part 2.

ComicMartin Zutis – Being
In a comic shop in Vienna I came upon a small self-published comic, ‘Being’ by Martins Zutis. Packed with surreal imagery and insights that float around the border between madness and brilliance, I particularly liked this observation:

The news reports we don’t question are myths.

Here’s a tiny snippet, or you can read a slightly longer extract here.

Martin Zutis - Being

Answer - The Linda Problem / Conjunction fallacy (see above)
Most people (85%, apparently) will answer that option 2 is more likely, “Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.”

At this point the person who set this problem usually laughs like a supervillain and points out that the probability of two things both being true must always be less than or equal to the probability of just one of those things being true. They will say this is a demonstration of the Conjunction Fallacy.

However, these people are wrong. What it actually shows is that if you choose to go against the cooperative priniciple in communication, people will misunderstand you so much that any attempt to isolate the Conjunction Fallacy is lost.

Consider a slightly different scenario:

Boris: I have two sisters. Alice is a bank teller. Eve is a bank teller and a feminist.
James: Oh, that’s interesting. Why do you think Alice doesn’t consider herself a feminist?
Boris: I didn’t say she wasn’t.

When I ask people where the mistake arose in this conversation, the surprisingly consistent judgement is that Boris was “being a dick”.

More formally, as noted in that article on the cooperative principle, we tend to implicitly assume that when someone is telling us something, they will narrow their focus to only that which is relevant. When Boris states that Eve is a feminist, this suggests this information is (for whatever reason) relevant, so the fact is was not noted for Alice strongly suggests she isn’t a feminist.

Some researchers then restate the problem by making it clear that option 1 is “Linda is a bank teller and may or may not be active in the feminist movement”, and still 57% of people think option 2 is more likely. But the assumption of relevance is still a confounding factor: the lead-in to the question is assumed to be relevant (when in fact it’s explicitly designed to be misleading), so I suspect people will be drawn to option 2 more because of this assumption (perhaps assuming they’ve misunderstood some part of the question) than because they misunderstand probability.

The Wikipedia article on the Conjunction Fallacy is much better than when I first reviewed it, covering these concerns and giving a much better demonstration of the fallacy in question.

(As an aside, I will note that I’ve often indulged in similar deviations from the cooperative principle for the sake of setting some kind of puzzle, although hopefully this is usually clear by context – for example, as I asked in Things 4, how far can a dog run into the woods?)

Things 95: Modern Movies, How to be Happy, Mouse Mystery

A beautiful demonstration of physics (or perhaps chemistry):

Scott Rudin, quoted in this GQ article about why movies are all rubbish these days:

Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they’re right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint.

Incidentally, while there’s clearly a huge argument to be had about the relevance of the data to the argument, let’s just contextualise the “things are terrible now” discussion by looking at the breakdown of what proportion of pre-2010 films in the IMDb top 250 come from each decade:

We see a broad trend that is the opposite of the “films used to be better” argument, apart from a post-war spike.

As I said, this is a starting point for huge arguments, and if I was going to start one I would begin with one of the following:
-Any popularity poll will tend to bias more recent candidates
-Demographic bias of IMDb voters and the scoring calculation used for the IMDb Top 250 will skew the result away from the “Objective Truth” (ha ha ha) of the matter
-This data does not speak to the more important issue of ‘typical’ film quality by decade

This week’s question
A mouse can fall any distance and survive. How is this possible?

I’ve had this obvious-but-actually-important thought myself, and this is a pretty great way of expressing it:

Answer to the previous question
In Things 94, I asked why ovens didn’t come with a built-in thermomenter.

Uncharacteristically, the Things community was unable to answer – or perhaps you weren’t interested. So I asked the internet using my secret research alter-ego* on Yahoo Answers, and also on Quora just to try that out.

You can see the range of responses I received on Yahoo answers, some of which are quite useful. The question on Quora has yet to draw a response, so I’m guessing the community there is still too niche to cover this kind of thing.

Putting together the suggestions from YA and my own thoughts, this is my conclusion:

1) It’s difficult (and therefore expensive) to make an oven thermometer that will remain accurate for the device’s lifetime. If it wasn’t, I suspect ovens would be thermostat-based, and we wouldn’t have the problem to begin with. (As I said, baking books insist there is a problem, and anecdotally I can report my gas oven is almost two gas marks cooler than it should be, and adjusting for this significantly improved my baking results).

2) It also must be difficult (and therefore expensive) to design and calibrate an oven such that it accurately produces the intended temperatures throughout its lifetime, because (once again) if this wasn’t true the problem wouldn’t arise.

3) The solution to the problem is to have a separate thermometer and use it from time to time to calibrate your oven. That thermometer then doesn’t need to maintain integrity for every use of your oven, and even if it does break it’s much easier to replace than an integrated one would be.

4) Admitting there is even a problem looks bad, so any oven manufacturer supplying such a thermometer unit with its devices would be perceived as worse than those that pretend there isn’t a problem.

5) Even if a manufacturer did include a built-in thermometer, people unaware of the oven temperature problem would again presume the oven must be sub-standard to need one, and people that know enough to worry would realise an integral thermometer couldn’t be trusted for long.

I suspect similar principles apply to protective cases and screen protectors for mobile devices.

*A long time ago I thought it might be prudent to separate my question-asking online identity from my confident-and-opinionated online identity. This doesn’t seem quite as important any more, and now that Things is a blog it’s very easy for someone to connect the two anyway, so now I don’t worry about linking from one to the other. But I’ll still use it anyway.

Things Christmas Special 2008

(Originally sent… okay, you can probably guess)

It’s Christmas and Things has been running for over a year. I’m taking that as an excuse to break with the usual format, and also to highlight what I (and some others) consider to be the best of the year’s Things.

Urgent matters first
I bought 10 tubs of Celebrations chocolates, discovered the average distribution of the different types, then created tubs of each kind and put them on eBay for charity to determine their value. I wrote up the initial results in my new blog:


The auctions end AT LUNCHTIME TODAY!

Check out how they are doing, or bid if you are so inclined, here:


[It’s long over now, read the final results here – T.M. 22/1/11]

Here are some videos that I like.

1) Tim ‘Speed’ Levitch is an extraordinary fellow that speaks in paragraphs that would take most other people hours to come up with. In the following video he holds forth on the New York grid plan and builds to a brilliant conclusion.

To sell you his style just a bit more, here’s his spontaneous introduction to a comment on a homeless person he passes while walking down the street: “[that person], under the white comforter, cuddled up with 34th street and Broadway, existing on the concrete of this city, hungry and dishevelled, struggling to crawl their way onto this island, with all of their machinated rages and hellishness and self-orchestrated purgatories…”


2) Somebody put a few frames of an anime featuring a woman spinning a leek around to a brilliantly loopy sample from an obscure band. A massive internet meme was born. Here’s where it all started (reposted).

Wikipedia article on the phenomenon.

3) This is my favourite tune and music video right now, and the intro guy is awesome too:


This guy makes armour for cats and mice. Or perhaps more accurately, scale sculptures that resemble such things:

Best of Things 2008

Worst translated menu in the world

XKCD on dreams and possibilities.

Acoustic Resonance – rice is used to illustrate standing acoustic waves on what I presume is a metal plate:


Analemma (click for big):

If you don’t know what an Analemma is, try to work it out from the photo.

The rainbow paradox, remains one of my favourite and (as far as I am concerned) unresolved puzzles:

Soundwaves can vary in frequency across a vast range, part of which we can hear. The lowest part we perceive as a deep bass, the highest as a high squeak.

Similarly, the electromagnetic spectrum consists of a vast range of frequencies, a small range of which we are able to see. The lowest frequency we can see is what we call red, and the highest frequency is what we call violet.

However, while we perceive the ends of the audible sound spectrum to be very different, the ends of the visible light spectrum, red and violet, seem very close to one another, and we even have a colour we call purple that is a mix of the two yet does not actually appear anywhere in the spectrum between them. In fact, we can draw a circle of the colours we perceive and it is not at all clear where the ‘ends’ are.

Why is this?

That’s it for Things until 2009.

Happy Thingking!