TROLLEYS, BRIDGES AND THE WALK FROM OMELAS

SPOILER ALERT: In this post I describe the plot of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin. If you’d like to read this short story before proceeding, you can do so here: [LINK]

This is one of those random conversations I had in my head while out and about, running errands. I thought it deserved a post of its own, because it involves some interesting ethical problems. It also ties a well-known philosophy problem to a popular piece of speculative fiction, allowing us to explore the story from different perspectives.

There are many variants of the trolley problem, which all have an ethical dilemma to be resolved. The catch is that whichever option you choose will result in someone’s death. You need to choose between inaction and action, deciding which is the least bad option. The most commonly-known version involves a trolley travelling at speed on a railway line towards a group of people on the tracks. You are able to see the disaster unfolding, and you have the ability to divert the trolley on to a secondary track, that only has one person trespassing on it. What do you do? You must make a split-second decision: do you do nothing and allow the deaths of many, or intervene and kill one person to save the others?

One choice allows you to do nothing, and allow the impending tragedy to unfold. But the decision in which you divert the wagon is an active choice to end one person’s life to save those of others. Would you be guilty of a crime in either case? I’m sure a decent prosecution lawyer could argue that. But what is the right thing to do?

Another variant is that of the fat man and the runaway truck. You and a grossly overweight person are stood on a bridge over a road. There is a group of people in the road, with no time to get them out of the way before a runaway truck collides with them. But if you were to shove the fat person off the bridge at the right moment, you could stop the truck and save the group of jaywalkers. The fat man dies in the collision, though. Which is the right choice there? You’re more involved in the process this time – it’s not as simple as pressing a lever to change the points; you would have to either allow events to take their course, or actively attack someone to take their life. There’d be little chance to wriggle out of that murder conviction in this scenario.

It has been noted that people might be biased in the way they handle the fat man problem, because of ingrained societal prejudices about fat people. That’s a fair point, and you can reformulate the problem by assuming that a person of typical weight would be sufficient to stop the truck. What will you do now?

Both of these philosophical exercises made me think of the short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin. FINAL SPOILER WARNING: If you don’t want to know the ending, look away now!

The city of Omelas sits in a bay, surrounded on all other sides by mountains. Occasionally, people are seen climbing the mountains, finding a route out of Omelas. No one knows what is on the other side of the hills, but these people are resolute in their need to get away. Omelas is a utopian city, everyone is happy, healthy and provided for. Their society is fair, just, and welcoming. Those who live there have everything they could ever desire.

But there is a place that dwellers can go to, a spectacle, where the essence of the city is kept. Without it, the city would collapse and the people could not have the perfect existence. In a cell, at the bottom of a castle, is a young child. The child has no interactions with other people, except when their keeper shoves a piece of bread and a water bowl under the door to the cell. The child has never been socialised, so it acts like a wild animal, lives in its own shit and sleeps in a corner. The child must live in this wretched state for Omelas to function (the reasons why are not explored, but this does not matter).

Those who walk away from Omelas are the ones that decide they cannot be a part of a society like that. Would you walk, or stay? And how do you feel about that society? Is one person’s suffering a price worth paying for the unfettered bliss of hundreds? What do we make of those who leave to seek an unknown fate – they have decided that anything is better than Omelas’s hidden truth.

THE FREDDO INDEX

I made a flippant comment on twitter about the price of EU membership compared to that well-known British monetary unit, the Freddo, and things got a little out of hand.

How else are we going to put it into context?

If you don’t know what a Freddo is, then you haven’t lived. It is a tiny treat, a little pice of whimsy and bliss. 18g of tasty milk chocolate, shaped like charming Freddo frog, the left’s antidote to that shit Nazi Pepe monstrosity.  You can buy a massive box of them using the link below (you’ll thank me for this, I promise you):

Cadbury Dairy Milk Freddo Chocolate Bar (Pack of 60)

It started off with someone still stuck in the good old days when a Freddo cost a mere ten pence, which led to much sucking of air in through teeth and “back-in-the-day”-ing, as we debated the present-day cost of a Freddo. A number of us hit the streets for some vital market research, carrying out an extensive survey of the Freddo marketplace. The end result was unanimous agreement that a Freddo now costs 30p, and lots of money in Cadbury’s pocket. It has to be the tastiest piece of fieldwork I’ve ever undertaken.

But do not see this as just a bit of larking around on Twitter; there has been some serious work put into tracking the rate of inflation of the Freddo. The graph below compares the actual price increase (purple) compared to the expected price increase in line with inflation (green).

It's not just Freddos - all of life's small pleasures have shot up in price. Click the image for more commentary.

As you can see, our wages just don’t go far enough to sustain a burgeoning Freddo habit. Someone helpfully worked out how much the minimum wage should be to account for outrageous increases in Freddo prices. In the Socialist Utopian Republic of Freddo, we would all be on at least £18/hr.

Of course this led to more silliness, although perhaps never a truer word said in jest – seeing as the UK’s primary means of communication these days is by plastering any old bollocks on the side of a bus.

Really puts things into perspective, doesn't it?

I thought it would be useful to compare the price increase of Freddos to that of house prices.  Everyone knows that they’re stupidly out of control, right?  I was in for a shock.

Sure, last decade house prices seemed to be growing out of control.  But they’ve levelled off, and the increase in values since 2000 is almost perfectly aligned with the growth you would see at a 2.33% annual rate.  So Freddo inflation is even higher than that of house prices.  At least millenials can still afford to buy Freddos.  And if we save up 666,667 of them, we’ll be able to afford a semi-detached house in Chorlton.

LOWERING THE BAR

I read another article tweeted by Better Male Allies this week; here it is:

6 Ways To Scare Off Technical Women From Your Company

I was particularly struck by the final item:

“Don’t do this: Lower the bar for female candidates. I once interviewed for a software engineering job on the same day that my husband interviewed with the same team for the same kind of role. When we compared notes afterwards, I was shocked at how hard his interview was. Mine was superficial and skirted any tough technical questions. We both got job offers, but I declined. I didn’t want to join a team that didn’t think I had the same technical chops as a man.

Do this instead: Design your interviews to be just as tough for women as for men.”

This really resonated with me.  I’ve attended interviews where I left thinking, “great, I sailed through that”, but received a call from the agency afterward to tell me that they wanted someone more senior.  I noticed a pattern – they were asking me extremely basic questions because they assumed that that was the level I operate at.  This would generally mean that I’d be asked only simple technical questions, and not anything more challenging or to do with the management aspects of engineering.  And this was in spite of the evidence on my CV that said I was more than capable.

But it gets worse.  I’ve accepted offers from firms after such a successful interview, to then be put in the most junior role on a team.  They interviewed me as a junior engineer, and so they employed me as one.  I’d be stuck doing menial churn work, with zero chance of progression.  And the team assumed I must be “new” as they’d been told by the interviewing panel that that was what they were getting.  Any attempts to query this were met with incredulity, because someone taken on in such a lowly position couldn’t possibly be so audacious as to challenge their authority.

Because of this lowering of the bar, the majority of my time employed in engineering has been in roles that I’m over-qualified for.  It’s demotivating and demeaning.  And while it won’t scare the women off until after the interview, it will cause them to quit.  And then the bosses will no doubt wring their hands over why women won’t stay, or where all the quality female candidates are.

WOMEN AND FEEDBACK

I wrote about two years ago on my unsuccessful quest for honest feedback, and found validation this month in a number of reports that back up what I was saying: that male leaders don’t like giving honest feedback to women.  Here’s the tweet that jogged my memory:

The article is linked in the image – click to go to hbr.org

Here’s another good article on the topic; the video link is worth a watch: Women Receive Worse Feedback Than Men, New Research Reveals (the title is a bit misleading, what they mean is that women receive feedback that is less effective than men do).

A central factor in this giving of half-hearted feedback is the worry that men have of offending or upsetting female staff.  Well, knowing that my career is stalled by unhelpful performance reviews is both upsetting and offensive.

I recognised this in my male managers – I can only think of one who spoke to me on the same level as the men in this regard.  And another actually confided in his boss that “he worries about me because I’m delicate and remind him of his wife” – how on earth could they provide me with professional feedback while holding such a sexist and inappropriate view?

 

JUST SAYING HELLO

We’ve all heard it before, amirite, ladies?  We mention an instance of street harassment in conversation, and some ‘helpful’ chap chimes in with “maybe he was just saying hello”, because clearly our experience is worth less than the hypothetical musings of some random man.  So I will start this post with an example of what is not “just saying hello”, which happened to me earlier this week, and then I will finish with an example of what is “just saying hello”, with the aim of clearing up any confusion.

NOT “Just Saying Hello”

This is just one example of many that I could have provided, like the times I’ve been grabbed in the street, yelled at out of cars and from the other side of the road, wolf-whistled and spat at, and told to smile by someone who has no right to my time or attention.  But this is the most recent, and perhaps the most entertaining.  So here we go, lads, this is how to not just say hello to a lady you’ve spotted minding her own business:

Walking home from a friend’s, and on my way to the little Tesco’s, I passed two blokes out for the night. One of them clearly had had enough (of drink, of the night, possibly of his over-exuberant friend) and wanted to go home, but the other was totally plastered and wanted to stay out.  They were discussing the merits of heading to the Northern Quarter, and as I passed the latter engaged me in the banter as to why they should party the night away.  I’m well aware that getting drawn into these situations can be A Bad Idea, but on that night my faith in humanity was at a high, and it seemed fun and harmless, so I obliged.  Besides, the sober-ish friend seemed to have his head screwed on right, so I felt safe.

The pissed-up friend was trying to convince his mate that there would be a naked street party on offer, and it was pretty funny – you really had to be there though – I jpkingly said it sounded great and I’d like to go along too.  His friend, however, was having none of it, and made his excuses and went home after we had walked a couple of blocks down.  We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and parted ways.  What a nice gentleman he was.

His friend decided to continue to walk with me up to the Northern Quarter as I was going that way anyway, and he had some serious partying to do (it’s not very far, maybe three minutes’ walk from where we were).  No problem with that. We got talking about politics and what I do for a living, no red flags apart from he wanted to know about my living arrangements in a little too much detail.  He decides he will also go to Tesco’s as he needs some food.  So far, so normal.  But… then he sort of follows me when I’m looking for bread and milk, and begins a deep philosophical discussion about bread choices.  After some consideration, I come to the conclusion that seeded batch will meet my carbohydrate needs. He approves, and then asks if he can come back to mine for toast and a glass of milk.  I sort of nervously half-laugh, and then realise he’s serious when he remonstrates with me that he played a vital role in my selection of baked goods, and this somehow entitles him to my toaster and, ahem, hospitality.  It got rather creepy and uncomfortable, as he’d set this up just right and clearly expected me to cave, but honestly, I don’t take drunken strangers home with me as a habit, and I prefer a more thoughtful courtship than this.  In spite of all my ‘no, thank you’s, he tries the age-old persuasion technique of asking me ten different variants of “oh go on” / “why not?” and then says “ok, I’m not going to push it” (you already have, mate) and then hotfoots it off into the night… I honestly don’t think he saw the problem with propositioning a random person in the bakery aisle.

So that was how to not just say hello.  Here is the alternative, for comparison:

Just Saying Hello

I was on my way to work in the morning, and I passed by a building site.  There was a labourer sat at the gate, reading the newspaper.  He looks up as I walk past, and says “Good Morning”.  I turn to face him, say “Good Morning” in return, and continue on my journey to the office.  Nothing more comes of this.

And that’s it.  It’s not difficult, right?  No stalking, creeping, manipulating me, literally Just Saying Hello.  We know the difference, thank you – if you need to check that we’re telling the truth then perhaps you need to examine your own behaviour.

WRITING FOR WRITING’S SAKE

Sometimes when inspiration eludes me, I get stuck in a mental rut. I put things off, I get distracted, I feel that there’s no point in starting as I’m not in the right frame of mind to write. But over the last year or so, I’ve really focused on the problem. It doesn’t matter if what I write, right now, is a load of complete drivel. I’ve done something, I’ve got it down on the page, and I can return to it.

I’ve got a few articles on the go at the moment, and what I’ve so far put together for each separate piece is not that great. But I can see elements of something quite special in all of them that I might be able to draw on, to pick and choose from, to get the words I want. I’ll probably write, re-write, and edit each one several times and I might not be happy with it then. But if I must be a perfectionist, I must also be a realist. A first draft is rarely the finished item, and if it is, then it’s probably not that good.

I spend a lot of my time alone, and travelling, and it gives me time and space to think. I come up with so many witticisms and points of principle that I do usually recall when I am back, sat at my keyboard. A little bit of distance allows me to mentally edit my prose from afar. The detachment allows me to look at it again with fresh eyes. And having seen the improvements I’ve made since allowing myself to make mistakes, I’m convinced now that this is the correct way to approach writing.

The hope it has given me has encouraged me to start a number of projects that I’ve had in the pipeline. I’d been putting them off, waiting until inspiration found me. Well it doesn’t work like that: you must find inspiration. Inspiration comes from within our own minds. Whether it is the ability to come up with an original idea, or a good eye for spotting an opportunity, it is 100% man-made. There’s no magic formula or mystical connection – it is created by us, and we bring it into being by imagining, re-imagining, and putting it on paper. If we never write it down it remains a dream.

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 11 – FOLDING@HOME

I’ve written before about getting involved with research volunteering; I do it because I enjoy:

  1. Getting paid for my time, brainpower and medical samples;
  2. Being part of a bigger research project that will advance technology for all of us.
And I’ve started contributing to the Folding@home project run by Stanford University. It’s a distributed computing effort similar to GIMPS, except they’re not searching for particular numbers; they use project members’ spare computing power to carry out calculations that model protein folding. The results of these calculations are used to study biological processes and to develop treatments for numerous conditions.

Well, that fulfils my desire to save humanity, one calculation at a time. But where’s the financial incentive, eh? Well, I’ve signed up with the 1337Foundation, who convert the points earned from the folding calculations into cryptocurrency. Unsurprisingly, the 1337Foundation pays me in 1137coin (this site plays music, which you may or may not enjoy, but just a friendly warning so that you don’t annoy your companions / coworkers!).  If you want to get involved, you’ll need to download a 1337 wallet, and then set your identity for F@h as your wallet address, and join team 233050 (more information here).

This currency was set up as a Gamers Currency, with “1337” symbolising “leet”, as in “leetspeak” (OMG this pushes all my geek buttons). Right now it’s not doing so great against the dollar, but most cryptocurrencies seem to be on a slight downward trend at the moment. I feel less concerned because I’m earning these coins as compensation for taking part in an experiment (people have calculated the typical energy use per day for continuous folding and it’s not huge, plus I have a large data allowance – although you only need about 1 GB/month).

I also secretly hope that if I hoard my 1337coins for long enough, they’ll see a similar explosion in growth to Bitcoin, and I can retire young and live in a tropical paradise somewhere. Although this is probably what all the folders are hoping. Never mind, belief in the value of the market actually keeps the market buoyant (for a time, at least). Have a little faith, people!

THE LEFT AIN’T SO REGRESSIVE

You may remember my rant on the “Regressive Left”, a phrase used by those wishing to disparage the views of those on the left who approach cultural mismatches with tact and pragmatism.  Well, those on the right have had a pop at Peter Tatchell this week on Twitter.  I’m so pleased that a well-known figure such as him is standing up for sensitive and intelligent handling of difficult issues.  Here’s some of the highlights:

@PeterTatchell I bet that guy is an absolute delight to be around.

Oh, wait, smearing LGBT folk looking out for ordinary Muslims as “the regressive left”, or “turkeys voting for Christmas” is actually doing the far-right’s work for them.  Whoopsy!

Human Rights are universal, you don't get to pick and choose. Wise words, indeed.

When you stand up for human rights, you need to consider a set of universal values.  You don’t get to downplay the rights of one group just because some of them hold objectionable views – that would be moral relativism, and I thought that was a bad thing, no?  They are still human beings.  We even have to extend that truth to the racists.  They are but human, sadly.

MILITANT ATHEISTS

The saying goes something like “But how can atheists be militant?  They are defined by their absence of ideology!”, usually said in the company of other cookie-cutter Straight White Male atheists, with all the self-awareness of a baboon’s arse.  Well, there is such a thing as a proselytising atheist, and this is what they look like from the outside:

 

Oh noes!

 

As much as I want to find this caricature unbelievable, I do sometimes find myself in the company of those whose mouths are bigger than their modesty.  And it is so tedious.  We don’t need to “debate” this stuff, it achieves nothing.  This Easter, let’s celebrate by keeping our mouths full of chocolate, and free from bluster.

 

A FORGOTTEN LIFE, REMEMBERED

There have been a few articles that have caught my eye recently about people who have either vanished intentionally, or who have disappeared some other way.  The first is this one, about a gentleman called Henry Summers, who lived on Easter Road in Leith.  Mr Summers was found dead in his flat, after three years in which nobody noticed or cared that he was no longer around in the neighbourhood.  It’s sad, and it happens sometimes – fortunately not too often, but for those lonely people who go undiscovered, it is a miserable death.  A former friend worked for a housing association, and they told me that sometimes, when they are asked to carry out an eviction, they turn up and discover that the rent’s not been paid for years because the tenant has died in the flat.  Not a pleasant discovery.

But Mr Summers’s story has a few twists, mainly in that people thought he was someone else, or two people, or that someone else was him.  It didn’t help that another Mr Summers, of a similar age, lived on the same road.  It turns out that that wasn’t too unlikely, as Summers was a common surname in the area.  Still kinda weird if you’re the other Mr Summers and everyone thinks you’re dead, though.

I had a similar problem in my 4th year at university.  I received a letter from the Student Loans Company informing me that my loan had been stopped due to me leaving my course.  Being an OCD sufferer, my brain went into overdrive.  What if I couldn’t buy food or pay rent?  What if I get evicted?  Have I been kicked off my course?  What did I do?  It turns out that someone else with the exact same name, date of birth, and in the same local education authority as me had dropped out of their studies at a college in Leicestershire.  I spoke with the SLC over the phone and convinced them that the had the wrong person.  Our names were next to each other on the list, and I can see how the mistake was made.

Something like this happened to a woman living in New York City, when somebody else kept stacking up driving offenses on her license!  Due to the way the system works (or doesn’t), the best thing she could do was pay the fines and hope she didn’t get any more (she did).  They did eventually meet, and the other Lisa Davis finally found out why her speeding tickets had mysteriously vanished off of her record so many times…

I find it more shocking that things like this happen so rarely, if you consider how many people share common names, and that coincidences around birthdates, hometowns, careers, etc. appear to occur quite frequently.  Maybe the system does work!

Mistaken identities aside, there are those who go missing and are never found.  Some intentionally, but not always.  The Missing Persons Bureau has people on their records going back over 50 years, and at present there are approximately 1,000 people on their database who remain unidentified.  As well as these, 250,000 people go missing every year.  Most are found, but many are not.

Here in Manchester, we had a recent local mystery, which could have been the plot of an Agatha Christie novel.  An elderly man arrived in Saddleworth, asked for directions to the top of the mountain, and was eventually discovered at the summit, dead from strychnine poisoning.  Just from those few facts, this looks seriously weird, and like there must be more to his story.  For months he went unnamed, until someone identified him as David Lytton, a British man who had lived in Lahore for many years.  Little else is known about him, and his death near to the Dovestone Reservoir remains a mystery.

In the town where I grew up, a young man was washed ashore, and found by passers-by, drenched in sea water and unable to speak.  While we were used to odd things happening there (it’s just one of those places, trust me), this was pretty epic, even by our standards.  He was taken to hospital, and given a pencil and paper.  He drew an elaborate sketch of a grand piano.  It was rumoured that when taken to a piano, he than played beautiful and complex pieces, but reports differ.  The local press dubbed him the “Piano Man”.  Eventually, he spoke, and was identified as Andreas Grassl, a 20-year-old German citizen who had gone missing four months earlier.  Today, little is known about how he ended up on Sheerness beach, although it is believed that he had planned to take his own life.

All of these tales are stories of intrigue, and sometimes tragedy.  While each of us considers our own life to be of high importance (whether we admit it or not), there is a chance that we may find ourselves in circumstances where there is no-one to look for us, or we cannot be found, or we cannot help ourselves.  If I went missing tomorrow, who would look for me?  And how likely is it that I would be discovered?  I have few living relatives, although I hope that at least some of my friends might enquire after my whereabouts.  What if I move abroad, or grow old alone?  That’s a more common scenario for today’s citizens than it has been at any other time for many centuries – who is going to keep track of the elderly millennials?  And what memories will we have to pass on to future generations?  I hope that I live an exciting enough life to get at least a full-page obituary, just not any time soon.