An ethical dilemma

January 7, 2014

I can’t quite remember where and when, but a long time ago I heard about or read about an ethical dilemma regarding responsibility and guilt. I think it was in the wake of a Dutch trial in ’94 where a man was charged[dutch newspaper article] with murder and assault by injecting his ex-girlfriend with HIV tainted blood. Although undoubtedly a heinous act, does it qualify as murder before the victim dies? And does it qualify as murder right away if the victim will not die for several years from AIDS complications? At any rate, the ethical dilemma is happily fictional and goes like this:

Three students share a dorm apartment in Albequerque. Alec, Basil and Callum. Alec is a bit of a health-nut and goes hiking —alone— in the desert every weekend. He packs his bag on Friday evening, making sure to include two bottles of water. Basil and Callum both hate Alec to the point of murder and they’ve both decided to try and kill him. However they are not aware of each others feelings and plans. At 11pm Basil sneaks into Alec’s room and pours a small amount of lethal poison into the second water bottle, lest Alec drink it while he’s still close to civilisation. Half an hour later Callum sneaks into Alec’s room, takes the second bottle and empties it before putting it back.

Alec’s mortal remains were found by hikers 3 months later about half a day’s hike from the nearest water source. Who killed him?

The reason this is a dilemma of course is that it’s not obvious who’s ultimately to blame for Alec’s death. It’s clear that both Basil and Callum tried to kill him, so they can at least be charged for attempted murder, but the ultimate responsibility is vague.

We can’t say that Basil killed Alec as the poison was never ingested. It never even came close to Alec as it was poured down the sink while he slept. If Basil had done nothing, the outcome would have been exactly the same.

However it’s also not clear that Callum killed Alec. If Callum hadn’t emptied the bottle then Alec would have died much sooner through poisoning rather than dehydration, a far more definitive death. In fact, one could make the point that Callum’s actions postponed death for several hours, not only —briefly— saving Alec’s life but also giving him a real chance of survival.

If Basil wasn’t involved at all, this would be a clear-cut case. However by doing something which ultimately had no physical effect Basil effectively removed a large portion of responsibility from Callum, and I’m not at all sure where it went. Is there such a thing as conservation of responsibility?

Sad cat is sad

May 27, 2013

A few days ago our #1 pet started showing signs of depression. It came on quite suddenly, sleeping a lot, loss of appetite, no purring, no grooming, no marking. There seem to be several common causes for cat depression, including a new pet (check), moving to a new place (well, yes, but we haven’t got there yet), changes to the living environment (check, the place has been a mess for weeks since we’re packing) and abandonment (check, with an additional cat in the house and a lot of work to do he’s been getting less attention).

We were getting quite worried about this as there are a lot of other stress factors in his near future and a cat that’s not eating is not long for this world. Today however he seems to be getting better at a rather spiffy rate (asking for food, jumping on window sills, playing with cat #2). From what we know about depression it’s unlikely to start and stop suddenly, unless it’s part of a bi-polar disorder.

But I haven’t watched the first 5 seasons of House* without learning anything and I think we may have found the actual problem. A few days ago we took the cat out into the car so he could get used to the space and the smell. Like the little furry chicken he is he immediately started struggling once it became obvious I wanted him inside the car. However once inside I let him go so he could explore in his own time. His plan of escape was well planned and expertly executed; one massive leap through the open window onto the safe green grass beyond. Unexpected complication was that the window in fact turned out not to be open after all.

It was quite a massive, head-first collision and given the rate at which symptoms occurred and then dissipated a concussion seems more likely. Unfortunately we didn’t think of it early enough to test for anisocoria.


* and yes, season 4 was lame and season 5 was terrible and I stopped watching after that.

I haven’t been posting much lately, reason being is that our life has taken a pretty significant turn. Since Christmas last year we’ve been looking for a new place to live. We finally found a nice little house in a quiet part of Tirol that’ll suit the three of us just fine. We have no idea yet how the cat will react to the local wildlife (should be mostly deer, foxes and hares), hopefully nothing untoward will happen.

House ourHouse = new House();

House ourHouse = new House();

None of us is a party animal and we’d much prefer to live amongst the trees than amongst the pubs. The place is somewhat on the small side for two people who both work from home, but we’ll make do.

One problem with living far away from centres of commerce is that we will need a car to get around. I don’t have a license yet but luckily K can serve as my chauffeur until I do. The house pretty much tapped all our savings but I think (read: hope) we’ve found something which will last us for the upcoming 5 years. It’s an early C220 CDI kombi model (2001), imported into Slovakia via Italy and owned by a succession of Mercedes dealership employees. We’ll be the fifth —and probably last— owners this car will ever have.

ICar hers = Mercedes.Create(220CDI);

ICar hers = Mercedes.Create(type.220CDI | type.Kombi);

Picture above from our first prolonged test-drive in the local mountains here. We had to pull over as apparently there was a bike race going on. Still, not a bad place to have a break. That’s Hotel Panorama on the ridge above us.

And lastly, we’ve also got a second cat. This wasn’t planned and we’re still hoping to find a new home for her before we drive to Austria next week. She showed up about a month ago on our window sill. Emaciated and scruffy. After a month or so with us she’s perked up a bit, though she is still very kittenish. Extremely social and hug-prone, but also a bit naughty so needs someone with firm hand who won’t shy away from smacking her over the head when she steals food.

Animal pet = furBall as Cat;

Animal pet = furBall as Cat;     //photo by K

After we’ve settled in I think I’ll be happy not having to make any major decision again for at least 3 years.

Exit House

December 23, 2012

As of a week ago we learned that our house will probably get sold within the next few months. We need to move out and find a new place asap. Unfortunately this means no Christmas holiday for me this year (damn! I had a selection of books lined up I was hoping to read; The Particle at the End of the Universe, Last Call, The Stress of her Regard, The Singularity is Near & Evolutionary Algorithms in Theory and Practice).

No idea yet where to go, though we do have some constraints. A place where people speak halfway decent English, some place with decent winters and not too harsh summers, somewhere close to impressive Nature and close to but not inside too big a city. That should narrow it down…

In the meantime, why do Realtor websites so often suck? In some cases it’s not even possible to open new pages with different houses as these are not stored in separate urls. Of course that also means you cannot bookmark or share them. Un-fucking-believable. And that’s not even to mention the poor quality of photos and plan drawings for 95% of the properties. Realtors being so desperate for me to actually visit them and review the places in their office makes me very suspicious indeed.

A to B [Trains]

November 2, 2012

Second installment in this series about travelling. Growing up in The Netherlands, it never occurred to me that people would travel within the same country by plane. Of course this is commonplace in the US, and maybe even in larger European countries, but it would be silly indeed to travel even between the furthest two Dutch cities by air, as the time you’d have to stand in line in the terminal would be about the same as it would take you to drive or ride there. Cities in Holland are so close together in fact, that from the top floor of the old Architecture Faculty* of the TUDelft you could see the The Hague city centre to the north and the Rotterdam city centre to the south well enough to distinguish individual building details. Travelling back home to my parents over the weekends would take me two hours on good days, and that involved crossing half the country. Trains are the go to answer for travel —from anywhere to anywhere— in Holland.

It wasn’t until I got thoroughly grossed out by air travel that I started looking into alternatives to long distance travelling, and unfortunately there aren’t that many options out there. I don’t own a car —or, indeed, a driver’s license— and buses disagree with my long legs. Zeppelins explode, ships sink and horses become unmanageable at the first sign of werewolves.

Trains however seem to deliver on every front; you can walk around while the train moves, you can buy tickets with a minimum amount of fuss, they get you right into the centre of towns (f*ck you Ryan Air!), some trains manage a very respectable average speed, you can open the windows and you can show up literally one minute prior to departure. There are however some suggestions I’d like to make to improve the whole train experience, especially concerning long distance trips:

  • Provide lockers or some other way for passengers to securely store their luggage.
  • Clean the outside windows so I can actually see through them.
  • Provide ways to switch off or dim the lights inside the train so the windows don’t act like mirrors at night.
  • Make sure the breaks run smoothly, the screeching is often unbearable when standing on the platform and the uneven acceleration/deceleration is disturbing on the inside.
  • Announce every stop 2~5 minutes in advance so people have enough time to get dressed and gather their belongings yet they aren’t compelled to do so half an hour too soon.
  • Invent some better toilets for heaven’s sake.
  • Drink and snack vending machines in every car.

My best personal train story involves a summer holiday trip from Italy back home (Firenze → Wien). I had booked the train well in advance via trenitalia.it which at the time only allowed me to  book in Italian. I had no idea what exactly it was that I booked for me + girlfriend and we were getting worried while standing on the fully crowded platform after spending a day walking around Florence in the blistering summer heat. We were tired, sweaty, hurting and dehydrated and not looking forward to spending a long night in a cabin with two crying babies. As it turned out though I managed to book us into the honeymoon suite (which went some way towards explaining the ticket price), which had a large two person bed with a large square window from which you can admire the Alps and a personal bathroom + shower. Granted, it was a very (very) small shower and water only came out while pressing a button, but it is more than enough to make you feel a hundred times better.

If we ever meet in person you can ask me to tell you my most embarrassing train story, but that is not for public consumption.

* Now sadly burned down through no fault of mine.

A to B [Airports]

October 26, 2012

When I was 12 —or thereabouts— my parents booked me on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to newly independent Prague, where I was to be picked up by my aunt. I don’t remember much of it to be honest, in fact the most vivid memories are about the dreams I had the night before. Since then I’ve flown a lot, in fact I have no idea idea how much, totally lost count, though it must be somewhere between 50 and 100 individual planes. It didn’t take me long to develop a healthy hatred of planes and especially airports. In the first installment of this series of posts about travelling I’ll be ranting about air-travel, why I hate it and what can be done to improve it.

Airports have become status symbols for cities and governments, evidenced by the fact that often starchitects are hired to design them. I’ve experiences a few of these modern terminals first hand and the designs are indeed grand and awe inspiring. So why is it that all airports I’ve ever set foot in —to channel Eric Cartman— suck donkey balls? Airports are an insult to your dignity as a human being.

The problem is threefold in my opinion; design, protocol and treatment. Allow me to presumptuously suggest a few improvements in no particular order.

  1. Make it easy for people who don’t speak the local language to get to and from the airport. If you have buses, paint them in a different colour from other buses and adorn them with airplane icons. Display countdowns next to boarding areas so that people know when the next service will run.
  2. Make it easy to pay for tickets in the bus/train itself, in currencies that are likely to be held by those using the service. Or better yet, provide free transport, at least for those with airline tickets.
  3. Airport bus drivers should speak at least a modicum of English.
  4. Provide some seating in the check-in area, so that when you make people wait for 2 hours before they can check-in, they have a place to sit.
  5. People who spend a long time in terminals are most likely transit passengers, they do not care for the local currency, language or culture. Don’t force these upon them. Don’t give me my change in Hungarian forints or Swedish krona when I pay you in Euros or Dollars.
  6. Be more frequent with information and more polite about bad news. “We will shortly start checking in passengers on flight XXXX to YYYY.” “Our apologies for keeping you waiting.” “Flight XXXX will depart from Gate NN instead, we apologize for the inconvenience.” You’d be surprised how far a little decency goes.
  7. Supply more seating in terminals and provide more power outlets, ideally both European, UK and US outlets for transit passengers in addition to whatever the local outlet system is.
  8. Supply showers with clean towels and shaving kits as a paid service for passengers with a few hours to spare at your airport.
  9. Make sure book-stores stock books in many languages, not just Danish.
  10. Examine what sort of books travellers would be interested in, as it most likely differs from your average non-travelling customer. Maybe a good selection of small books that are easily carried, or maybe graphic novels that can be quickly read.
  11. A small theatre that shows short to medium length films would definitely take the edge off a four hour transit waiting time.
  12. Provide lockers in strategic places so people don’t have to haul their hand-luggage around all the time.
  13. Provide different kinds of environments for people to wait long term in. Larger smokers areas with perhaps a tobacconist (I don’t smoke, but seeing those poor lost souls puffing away in their air-tight upright bathtubs is enough to depress anyone). A tropical butterfly garden, a botanical garden, japanese garden, faux lake and I can think of 38 more.
  14. Make a distinction between areas meant for those in motion and those in rest.
  15. Reduce sounds in rest areas.
  16. Have a public customer rating system for all restaurants so you don’t go in blind.
  17. When boarding planes with assigned seats, enforce boarding from back to front to avoid long waiting lines at the gate.
  18. Make it easy for people to learn about local weather conditions at their destination.
  19. Better directions within the terminal, consistent usage of colours.
  20. Provide more locations where people can get quality information about flights, delays, locations etc. It’s a bit lame that the only people who can typically answer your questions only appear at your gate 10 minutes before boarding.
  21. A continuous system of luggage carts driven around the gates so you can jump on, tell the driver your gate number and be certain to arrive there relatively quickly.
  22. If you’re running a 24 hour airport, don’t close down the shops and restaurants at 8 o’clock in the evening. Serve all day breakfast and dinner. People are coming in from time-zones all over the world for chrissakes.
  23. Have a wider selection of merchandise available at shops. I don’t need clothes (I’ve already packed them), I don’t want hardware (I’d rather buy in a store where I can go back to for warranty issues), I’m not going to need massive amounts of alcohol, chocolate or perfume on a business trip. By all means, have those shops, but also provide alternatives. People at airports will be more likely to buy something weird and expensive as they cannot easily return to the shop at a later date. I’m thinking minerals, curta calculators, hobby supplies, wool, fossils.
  24. A big problem with shopping while travelling is having to carry your new possessions. It would be great if shops could deliver to your home or hotel address. Surely a proper international chain could handle this across borders.
  25. Please dispense with the whole security, undressing-in-public, making-people-wait-in-serpentine-queues circus, you’re not fooling anyone.

Up next, trains.

Physical Interface Design

September 1, 2012

I don’t cook every day. But when I do, I enjoy it and I especially like to make oven-dishes (they give me time to clean up and wind down while the stuff is simmering away in the oven). Today I made two small one-person chicken-leek pies and several things struck me about my oven that one would categorize under GUI flaws were my oven to be software. I’ve noticed these things about most ovens/stoves I’ve ever owned so it seems to be pretty systemic.

  1. Why is the light inside the oven exactly the kind of colour that makes everything look done? Why doesn’t it have a —say— daylight spectrum so my food actually looks like its supposed to look?
  2. Why is there only one light inside the oven? It’s very easy to cast shadows onto food if you use more than one level now.
  3. Why is the glass front covered in a fine grid of black dots? If I want to see inside my oven I have to move my head like a chicken on crack just to stop my eyes from auto-focusing on the pattern.
  4. The metal grid that covers the gas-burners is made up of two pieces. They too big to fit into the sink so I have to wash them in the shower. Why couldn’t they have made it four pieces?
  5. Why are there so many narrow creases near the bit where grease tends to spatter?
  6. Why do the gas-burners whistle at certain settings?
  7. Why is the smallest burner on the lowest setting still too strong to let creamy sauces simmer?

While living in Toulouse and Turku I’ve had electric stoves which are typically not plagued by 4, 6 & 7. I could never get used to electric stoves though, just not responsive enough.