Trolley Problems

Terrence Tomkow in his own blog:

A runaway trolley is coming down the track. It is headed towards five people who cannot get out of its way. A Passerby realizes that he can save the five by throwing a switch and diverting the trolley down a siding, but he also realizes that if he does so, the trolley will kill a Lone Man standing on the siding.

ScreenHunter_09 May. 01 10.06

Should you divert the trolley? Lots of folks say, “Yes!” Whether or not they are right is an interesting problem but it is not what philosophers call “The Trolley Problem“. That problem involves a different case:

A runaway trolley is coming down the track. It is headed towards five people who cannot get out of its way. A passerby realizes that if he pushes a nearby fat man onto the tracks his bulk will stop the trolley before it hits the five, though the fat man himself will be killed.

ScreenHunter_10 May. 01 10.08

Most people, including those who think it is okay to turn in TROLLEY, think that it is not okay to push the FAT MAN. “The Trolley Problem” is how to reconcile these two answers. In both cases it seems you can do something that will save five people but only by killing one. How can anyone think it okay to turn in TROLLEY but wrong to push the FAT MAN? What difference is there between the two stories that can possibly make a moral difference?

In the almost forty years since Judith Jarvis Thomson first posed the problem in this form there have many attempts to solve it but none is generally accepted as successful. Indeed a general consensus seems to have developed that the “folk intuitions” (as philosophers call them) about the difference between these cases are simply irrational.

More here.



Among the enduring mysteries of the American Civil War is why millions of Northerners were willing to fight to preserve the nation’s unity. It is not difficult to understand why the Southern states seceded in 1860 and 1861. As the Confederacy’s founders explained ad infinitum, they feared that Abraham Lincoln’s election as president placed the future of slavery in jeopardy. But why did so few Northerners echo the refrain of Horace Greeley, the editor of The New York Tribune: “Erring sisters, go in peace”? The latest effort to explain this deep commitment to the nation’s survival comes from Gary W. Gallagher, the author of several highly regarded works on Civil War military history. In “The Union War,” Gallagher offers not so much a history of wartime patriotism as a series of meditations on the meaning of the Union to Northerners, the role of slavery in the conflict and how historians have interpreted (and in his view misinterpreted) these matters. The Civil War, Gallagher announces at the outset, was “a war for Union that also killed slavery.” Emancipation was an outcome (an “astounding” outcome, Lincoln remarked in his second Inaugural Address) but, Gallagher insists, it always “took a back seat” to the paramount goal of saving the Union. Most Northerners, he says, remained indifferent to the plight of the slaves. They embraced emancipation only when they concluded it had become necessary to win the war. They fought because they regarded the United States as a unique experiment in democracy that guaranteed political liberty and economic opportunity in a world overrun by tyranny. Saving the Union, in the words of Secretary of State William H. Seward, meant “the saving of popular government for the world.”

more from Eric Foner at the NYT here.

texas trillin


Calvin Trillin is a man of principle. He can’t stand, for instance, people who talk about themselves in the third person, which made things difficult back in the days of Dole and Dukakis. He once declared that people caught trying to sell macramé should be, themselves, “dyed a natural color.” And of writers, he once said: “There is no progress” — no corporate world to fall back on, no middle management. Writers are as good as the last thing they wrote, and sometimes not even that. Atop that bedrock of curious dogma, Trillin has built an itinerant and confounding career. He is viewed as a consummate New York writer, though he grew up in the sturdy Midwest. He was a big wheel in the Ivy League, though he relishes kicking the pedestals beneath those who were big wheels in the Ivy League. He became an early and influential guru of regional cuisine, though he professed to know next to nothing about the subject. During his prolific 50 years, in the New Yorker and other publications and in 27 books, Trillin has tackled a ridiculous array of subjects: politics and culture, Americana and adventure, lore and history, catfish and milkshakes, even — famously — parking. So in his latest book, “Trillin on Texas,” it is surprising and even mesmerizing to watch Trillin return — sort of — to his roots.

more from Scott Gold at the LA Times here.

cadences of pure poetry


Not so long ago the Reverend Mary Garbutt, Anglican pastor of a village in Northamptonshire, performed a gruelling sponsored marathon. She read out loud the entire 823,156-word text of the 1611 King James Bible over three and a half days. She read for 14 hours at a stretch, with only occasional 10-minute breaks, while parishioners stood by with orange juice, cakes and throat lozenges. Croaking through the final pages, she burst into tears, she said, from a sense of “spiritual joy”. Rector Garbutt’s project was just one of many readings, conferences, broadcasts and exhibitions in recent months to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJB), which falls putatively on May 2. For centuries the dominance of the KJB was unchallenged among English-speaking Protestants, and still is among many American Christian faith communities. At his inauguration, President Barack Obama took the oath of office from Lincoln’s copy of the KJB. Reputedly the most read book in English, it now competes with scores of subsequent translations that have strived to reduce obsolete expressions; yet it still sells some 250,000 copies each year. Despite the stumbling block of its archaic language and spelling, the KJB retains for many an impression of peerless sublimity. All those “begats”, “knoweths” and “spakes”, and occasional sheer gobbledegook – “Moab is my wash-pot ouer Eom wil I cast out my shooe” (in the spelling of the 1611 edition) – interpenetrate with cadences of pure poetry.

more from John Cornwell at the FT here.

In Defense of Flogging

Peter Moskos in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_07 Apr. 30 15.04 When I started writing In Defense of Flogging, I wasn't yet persuaded as to the book's basic premise. I, too, was opposed to flogging. It is barbaric, retrograde, and ugly. But as I researched, wrote, and thought, I convinced myself of the moral justness of my defense. Still, I dared not utter the four words in professional company until after I earned tenure. Is not publishing a provocatively titled intellectual book what academic freedom is all about?

Certainly In Defense of Flogging is more about the horrors of our prison-industrial complex than an ode to flogging. But I do defend flogging as the best way to jump-start the prison debate and reach beyond the liberal choir. Generally those who wish to lessen the suffering of prisoners get too readily dismissed as bleeding hearts or soft on criminals. All the while, the public's legitimate demand for punishment has created, because we lack alternatives, the biggest prison boom in the history of the world. Prison reformers—the same movement, it should be noted, that brought us prisons in the first place—have preached with barely controlled anger and rational passion about the horrors of incarceration. And to what end? Something needs to change.

Certainly my defense of flogging is more thought experiment than policy proposal. I do not expect to see flogging reinstated any time soon. And deep down, I wouldn't want to see it. And yet, in the course of writing what is, at its core, a quaintly retro abolish-prison book, I've come to see the benefits of wrapping a liberal argument in a conservative facade. If the notion of tying people to a rack and caning them on their behinds à la Singapore disturbs you, if it takes contemplating whipping to wake you up and to see prison for what it is, so be it! The passive moral high ground has gotten us nowhere.

More here. [Thanks to Ejaz Haider.]

Israel: Prosperous but Unequal

Nathan Jeffay in Forward:

ScreenHunter_06 Apr. 30 14.59 When Israel was invited to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared it an international “seal of approval.” But a year later, it’s clear that membership in the elite group has brought anything but approval of the country’s direction in one key area: inequality.

Israel’s ascension last May to the OECD — an organization of the world’s most prosperous economies — has shone a spotlight on the economic strengths and weaknesses of the state, as compared with other OECD countries.

Growing by 7.8% last year, the Israeli economy ranked fifth highest in growth among the group’s 34 members. Israel’s growth outstripped that of the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany and France.

At the same time, the group has reported that poverty is almost twice as widespread in Israel, 19.9% of the population, compared to the OECD average, 10.9%. The gap between the overall standard of living in Israel and that of the lowest tenth of the population was three times higher than the OECD average. In its latest release of data, made public April 12, the OECD reported that 39% of Israelis find it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current incomes, well above the OECD average of 24%.

More here.

What Is Totalitarian Art? Cultural Kitsch From Stalin to Saddam

Kanan Makiya in Foreign Affairs:

ScreenHunter_05 Apr. 30 14.49 In his important and encyclopedic tome on the art produced under the twentieth century's four most brutal political systems — the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China — Igor Golomstock makes it clear that he is writing not about “art under totalitarian regimes” but rather about “totalitarian art,” a particular cultural phenomenon with its own ideology, aesthetics, and style. This type of art did not arise because of common threads running through Soviet, German, Italian, and Chinese culture; the cultural traditions of the countries, Golomstock holds, are “simply too diverse” to explain the stylistic and thematic similarities among totalitarian works. He collects these similarities under the term “total realism,” a genre that has its roots in the socialist realist art of the Soviet Union after 1932, when Stalin decreed it the only type of art acceptable.

One cannot think of a more perfect example of the totalitarian artistic impulse than Saddam's insistence that a cast of his own forearms be used as the mold from which the Victory Arch was to be made. But in general, depictions of the leader, perhaps the most common subject of total realism, had to be mythologized. It would not do, for example, for a Soviet artist to depict Stalin as the short, pockmarked, bandy-legged man that he really was. His physical attributes, as in F. S. Shurpin's portrait The Morning of Our Fatherland, had to undergo the same transformation as Stalin's version of history, to be turned into what the writer Milan Kundera so eloquently referred to as “the beautifying lie.”

More here.

The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein

From The Telegraph:

Cloud-messenge_1882494f The title of this taut new novel from Aamer Hussein comes from a legend, in which clouds carry messages of love from separated lovers across the world. Relationships, and their varying levels of permanence, are thus the main theme, as we follow the narrator, Mehran (who appears sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, adding to the novel’s dreamlike quality), in his tangled encounters. Mehran’s youth, as a scion of a grand family in India, prepares him for adulthood in that he learns never to put too much faith in friends: they come and go, for him, like clouds, as he switches from city to city, country to country. His cultured relatives feed him poetry and stories; he ends by studying Urdu and Persian in London.

Hussein’s evocation of Mehran’s early childhood is precise and therefore of almost photographic vividness. The extraordinary – Mehran’s mother has shot a crocodile, while his aunt has bagged a tiger – rubs against the everyday, as the children long for rain and Enid Blyton. This mixing of the magical and the mundane is also key to the book. In London, Mehran finds his first fixed friendships, with Riccarda, an older, married woman who loves dancing till dawn, yet who has a son not much younger than Mehran himself; and with Marco, a wild, good-looking Italian boy who gets all the girls, and yet with whom Mehran has the tiniest of erotic frissons.

More here.

Shakespeare and the Will to Deceive

From The New York Times:

Art Somewhere buried under the floorboards of this splendidly devious novel is a real-life event. In 1794, a young Englishman, William Henry Ireland, came across something astonishing that he hurried to show his father: an old mortgage deed, with its seal intact, signed by none other than William Shakespeare.

The young man’s father, Samuel, an antiquarian and a passionate Shakespeare enthusiast, was thrilled, and still more thrilled when from the same mysterious source — an old chest in the possession of a reclusive aristocrat who wished his identity to remain secret — his son came up with a series of further discoveries. These included contracts; theatrical receipts; correspondence between Shakespeare and his patron, the Earl of Southampton; a letter to Shakespeare from Queen Elizabeth herself; a “profession of faith” in Shakespeare’s own hand, proving once and for all that he was a good Protestant; and the playwright’s own manuscript of “King Lear.” Alerted to the news, people crowded into Ireland’s house. James Bos­well fell to his knees to kiss the great playwright’s relics. Against his son’s vehement objections, the proud Samuel hurried most of these stupendous finds into print. But he held in reserve the best of them all, until they could be returned in glory to the stage where they belonged: two full-length plays by Shakespeare, both hitherto unknown, “Vortigern and Rowena” and “Henry II.”

More here.

Quality of Life: India vs. China

Sen_1-051211_jpg_230x846_q85 Amartya Sen in the NYRB:

The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite the evident excitement that this subject seems to cause in India and abroad, it is surely rather silly to be obsessed about India’s overtaking China in the rate of growth of GNP, while not comparing India with China in other respects, like education, basic health, or life expectancy. Economic growth can, of course, be enormously helpful in advancing living standards and in battling poverty. But there is little cause for taking the growth of GNP to be an end in itself, rather than seeing it as an important means for achieving things we value.

It could, however, be asked why this distinction should make much difference, since economic growth does enhance our ability to improve living standards. The central point to appreciate here is that while economic growth is important for enhancing living conditions, its reach and impact depend greatly on what we do with the increased income. The relation between economic growth and the advancement of living standards depends on many factors, including economic and social inequality and, no less importantly, on what the government does with the public revenue that is generated by economic growth.

Some statistics about China and India, drawn mainly from the World Bank and the United Nations, are relevant here. Life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years; in India it is 64.4 years. The infant mortality rate is fifty per thousand in India, compared with just seventeen in China; the mortality rate for children under five is sixty-six per thousand for Indians and nineteen for the Chinese; and the maternal mortality rate is 230 per 100,000 live births in India and thirty-eight in China. The mean years of schooling in India were estimated to be 4.4 years, compared with 7.5 years in China. China’s adult literacy rate is 94 percent, compared with India’s 74 percent according to the preliminary tables of the 2011 census.



Two decades ago, RCMP officers drove up a winding road through the Creston Valley of southeastern British Columbia, past fields of timothy hay and cottonwood stands, to an unmarked settlement known as Bountiful. It looked a typical rural town — homesteads bordered by well-kept yards full of children running and swinging and cycling — but, in fact, the officers had come to investigate a complaint that two local patriarchs, young gun Winston Blackmore and his fifty-seven-year old father-in-law Dalmon Oler, were polygamists — an offence under Section 293 of the Criminal Code. All 1,000 or so residents of Bountiful are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon sect that believes God’s chosen leaders should each marry several virgins and “multiply and replenish the Earth… that they may bear the souls of men.” Unashamed, Oler invited the officers into the fifteen-bedroom home he shared with his five wives and forty-eight children. Blackmore, who in addition to leading Canada’s FLDS operated a multimillion-dollar logging, trucking, and manufacturing business, was cagier about numbers, only admitting to having more than one wife. He was rumoured, however, to have at least twenty-five (many underage at the time he married them), and more than eighty children.

more from Elizabeth Abbott at The Walrus here.

forster unlocked


The reason for E. M. Forster’s apparent abandonment of fiction after the publication of A Passage to India in 1924 is now well known: “Weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women & vice versa”. Forster had written down this explanation in June 1910 in what became known as “the Locked Diary”. This notebook, which could indeed be locked by a clasp and key (occasionally mislaid), was used by Forster between September 1909 and June 1967 to record those thoughts and observations he wanted to keep private. It now forms the “central column”, as he puts it, of Philip Gardner’s very welcome but problematic three-volume edition of Forster’s journals and diaries. Some previously published material apart, these volumes purportedly contain “everything by Forster that could reasonably be considered as a diary/journal, or which, though classifiable as a memoir, presents evidence of Forster not only in intellectual but in biographical terms”. As we shall see, this is not entirely accurate, but what Gardner does include covers some seventy years of Forster’s long life, running in fragmentary form from 1895 to 1965 and even reproducing brief and bald travel itineraries for holidays in France (1931 and 1955) and Italy (“possibly 1962”). The Locked Diary aside, the most interesting parts of the book are the “Incidents of War” memoir, an appropriately jagged, almost modernist mosaic created from the conversations Forster had with wounded soldiers while working for the Red Cross in Egypt during the First World War, along with extracts from their letters; the “Notebook Journal (1903–9)” and intermittent diaries kept in 1954, 1955 and 1958; and the innocently titled “West Hackhurst: A Surrey ramble”, in fact a score-settling account in Forster’s best feline manner of his eviction in 1946 from the house at Abinger Hammer his father had designed and where he had lived since 1924.

more from Peter Parker at the TLS here.

New Dilemmas in Bioethics

Over at Rationally Speaking:

In this one hour episode, recorded live at the 2011 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, Massimo [Pigliucci] and Julia [Galef] discuss bioethics with two special guests: Jacob Appel, doctor, author, lawyer and bioethicist; and Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and historian of science. Topics covered included: Should parents be allowed to select the gender and sexual orientation of their babies? Should pharmacists and physicians be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that violate their own religious or ethical principles? And when is assisted suicide acceptable?

The Visitor

Max-weber Alan Wolfe reviews Lawrence A. Scaff's Max Weber in America, over at TNR's The Book:

MAX WEBER IN AMERICA? The idea seems almost preposterous. We often think of Weber as the quintessential European thinker: abstract, worldly, brooding, and difficult. The America of his period of greatest productivity, the first two decades of the twentieth century, comes down to us as isolationist, anti-intellectual, bombastic, and about to embark on flapperdom. How could one have any influence on the other?

But as Lawrence Scaff effectively shows in his new book, Weber cannot be understood without an appreciation of his experiences in this country, and America’s special path to modernity is difficult to grasp without a substantial dip into Weber’s extensive body of writing. Like Antonín Dvořák, who incorporated American spirituals and folk tunes into his symphonic and chamber compositions, Weber’s fascination with all aspects of American culture belies any notion that the new world and the old were incapable of meeting on equal terms.

Weber and his wife Marianne arrived in the United States in August, 1904 for a three-month stay. The reason for their visit was the Congress of Arts and Sciences, an offshoot of the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Once capable of generating massive fascination, World’s Fairs have lost their appeal. (The 2012 Expo will take place in Yeosu, South Korea and will be devoted to issues of coastal management.) In Weber’s day, by contrast, not only did the events in St. Louis inspire a famous musical comedy, they brought together an all-star list of American and European intellectuals to debate whether there exists a methodological unity linking the natural and social sciences. John Dewey and William James did not show up in St. Louis, which was too bad, because not only Weber but also such extraordinary German scholars as Werner Sombart and Ernst Troeltsch did.

Theodore Roosevelt invited the leading academics from St. Louis to the White House for a reception, much as the current president honors the annual March Madness champion. Weber did not attend because he preferred to go to Muskogee.

Friday Poem

A Rainy Morning

A young woman in a wheelchair,

wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

by Ted Kooser

What Defines a Meme?

From Smithsonian:

Memes-illustration-631 What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions,” Richard Dawkins declared in 1986. Already one of the world’s foremost evolutionary biologists, he had caught the spirit of a new age. The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment. “If you want to understand life,” Dawkins wrote, “don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”

We have become surrounded by information technology; our furniture includes iPods and plasma displays, and our skills include texting and Googling. But our capacity to understand the role of information has been sorely taxed. “TMI,” we say. Stand back, however, and the past does come back into focus. The rise of information theory aided and abetted a new view of life. The genetic code—no longer a mere metaphor—was being deciphered. Scientists spoke grandly of the biosphere: an entity composed of all the earth’s life-forms, teeming with information, replicating and evolving. And biologists, having absorbed the methods and vocabulary of communications science, went further to make their own contributions to the understanding of information itself.

More here.

Selfless behaviour brings success for all

From PhysOrg:

Selflessbeha One possibility to spur people on to save energy: people punish selfishness more when their group is in competition with others. That which motivates a football team to committed could also benefit climate change. The members of a group act in a particularly selfless manner and for the benefit of the group, especially when their community is in competition with others. They are then more likely to accept disadvantages themselves in order to punish members of their group who behave selfishly. A research group headed by the economics researcher Lauri Sääksvuori at the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena has gained this insight by conducting investigations involving game theory. This could result in a way of spurring people on to save energy.

A striker who is primarily interested in his own goal-scoring statistics is likely to cost his team a number of victories. But if he has to make a donation to the team kitty for each instance of reckless behaviour, he will probably let the striker picked by the trainer take the penalty kick, for example. It is possible that incentives can similarly be created to promote unselfish behaviour to protect the climate, for example. This is suggested by findings obtained by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena.

More here.

The people of Bangladesh have much to teach us about how a crowded planet can best adapt to rising sea levels. For them, that future is now

Don Belt in National Geographic:

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 29 11.36 In places you might expect to find solitude, there is none. There are no lonesome highways in Bangladesh.

We should not be surprised. Bangladesh is, after all, one of the most densely populated nations on Earth. It has more people than geographically massive Russia. It is a place where one person, in a nation of 164 million, is mathematically incapable of being truly alone. That takes some getting used to.

So imagine Bangladesh in the year 2050, when its population will likely have zoomed to 220 million, and a good chunk of its current landmass could be permanently underwater. That scenario is based on two converging projections: population growth that, despite a sharp decline in fertility, will continue to produce millions more Bangladeshis in the coming decades, and a possible multifoot rise in sea level by 2100 as a result of climate change. Such a scenario could mean that 10 to 30 million people along the southern coast would be displaced, forcing Bangladeshis to crowd even closer together or else flee the country as climate refugees—a group predicted to swell to some 250 million worldwide by the middle of the century, many from poor, low-lying countries.

More here.

How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon

Johann Hari in Slate:

091102_BOOKS_aynRand2TN Ayn Rand is one of America's great mysteries. She was an amphetamine-addicted author of sub-Dan Brown potboilers, who in her spare time wrote lavish torrents of praise for serial killers and the Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers of her day. She opposed democracy on the grounds that “the masses”—her readers—were “lice” and “parasites” who scarcely deserved to live. Yet she remains one of the most popular writers in the United States, still selling 800,000 books a year from beyond the grave. She regularly tops any list of books that Americans say have most influenced them. Since the great crash of 2008, her writing has had another Benzedrine rush, as Rush Limbaugh hails her as a prophetess. With her assertions that government is “evil” and selfishness is “the only virtue,” she is the patron saint of the tea-partiers and the death panel doomsters. So how did this little Russian bomb of pure immorality in a black wig become an American icon?

Two new biographies of Rand—Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller—try to puzzle out this question, showing how her arguments found an echo in the darkest corners of American political life.* But the books work best, for me, on a level I didn't expect. They are thrilling psychological portraits of a horribly damaged woman who deserves the one thing she spent her life raging against: compassion.

More here.