Blackmailing a Utilitarian

Often in a TV show—notably in 24 and Arrow—the bad guys kidnap a family member, and our character has no choice but to cooperate with the criminals. “I have your wife” is the name of the tvtrope. Fearing harm to the one hostage, a “good” character often puts a hundred or a thousand or a million people at mortal risk to save one person. Of course, the bad case where a million people die never happens, and the good guys almost always manage to save the city as well as the hostage, all whilst never considering a sacrifice for the greater good. Even in the most dire circumstances, they claim, “There is always a way.”

This method has always seemed super irrational to me. The most classic thought experiment in ethics is the trolley problem, where a trolley is about to run over five people but you have the ability to flip the tracks to run over one different person instead. It seems like you should almost always save the five people, even if the one person were your family. As a utilitarian, I find that the blackmail dilemma makes little sense.

The only case I would let the five die is if the one person on the other track was obviously very good for humanity and many times more so than average. Maybe you could argue that Elon Musk has enough of a climate-change-mitigating effect on the world that it’s better that five random people die than Musk, who might arguably avert the loss of a hundred thousand people to environmental degradation.

I have often made the claim before that even if the one person were family, I’d save the five people in a trolley problem.

“But wait,” multiple people have told me when I express that idea. “You might claim to be a utilitarian, but when you actually have someone you care about, or children someday, there’s no way you would actually decide to abandon them.”

The fact that everyone says that is definitely an update to my belief. But at the same time, I can’t help but to think, “Sure, I understand from evolutionary biology/evolutionary psychology why the base desire to protect one’s genes is so strong. But at a lot of human civilization and progress has occurred because of suppression of base desires encoded in our genes, e.g. murder and tribal warfare. If we’ve learned to not murder, it’s also possible that we’re capable of reasoning about which person to save rationally, not just decide as we’re biologically programmed to.”

“That sounds reasonable,” they respond. “But until you’ve held your own child in your arms, you don’t know what it means. You can’t possibly understand.”

“Sounds right,” I say. “But even knowing that you think that, I can pre-commit to making the utilitarian decision in the trolley problem.”

In the blackmailing trope, the character is often made to directly do something to endanger the lives of lots of people. In some season of 24, some dock worker helps terrorists smuggle in a nuclear bomb(?). The person wasn’t under gunpoint; they had a full day to go to the police, and yet they did nothing.

Would we be better off if everyone claimed to be a utilitarian? Probably not, since the claim wouldn’t be very credible. If there are 5 powerful people in some organization and one of them needs to be blackmailed for some purpose, criminals could target the person they deduce is least utilitarian. Therefore, a few people converting to be utilitarian doesn’t help so much. However, if blackmail were more common, it would probably nudge people to be more utilitarian, as signaling one is a utilitarian has a deterrence effect on criminals from kidnapping one’s family members.

Is It Offensive?

the-interview

North Korea’s recent reaction to American mockery, a trailer for “The Interview,” is overwhelmingly regarded as comical and immature. Our freedom of speech clearly includes the freedom of mockery, and NK’s reaction shows just how insane their leaders are. (There are a very few of those “But what if Seth Rogen actually starts World War III?” people, but it’s hard to tell whether they are trolling or serious.)

In 2012, we put up a trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” and after international bloodshed and attacks on our embassies, we blamed the victims and told them they should have known better than to create works that offended such people. (Related are the 2006 Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons, or Salman Rushdie, for a couple more famous examples.)

So in one case, parody is considered a completely harmless comedy, and in the other, it is considered such words as “offensive” or “disrespectful” or “Islamophobic.” Why are we so hypocritical at choosing what is offensive and what is not? Why do we support one tyranny (i.e., by denouncing those who criticize it) while condemning another?

One Second Left

I really enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow (an 8 on my movie list), but one plot detail really bugged me. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not going to spoil anything directly.

countdown-timer

(Image link—pretty funny.)

It’s part of a larger category that happens in most action movies actually. This particular example doesn’t happen in Edge of Tomorrow: every time there is a countdown timer where something really, really bad will happen (typically an explosion), the protagonist will save the day with one second left til destruction, whether the timer was originally set to five minutes or five hours. In every action movie there are several of these “just in time” moments. And yes, I understand, this is what makes the movies suspenseful.

That really annoys me.

Did the aliens annoy me? Nope. Time travel loops? Nope. But impeccable luck and timing? Yes.

Is there any deeper meaning behind this? People have said that I over-criticize movie meanings, but I think this does have some harmful effects. The “protagonist always gets the girl” cliché is the worst in terms of social damage for obvious reasons, but “one second left” has its own issues. It distorts our views of luck and chance, thereby affecting our risk judgment, and it turns the extremely improbable into the probable.

A bigger issue still is that the “protagonist wins” cliché, which is in 99% of movies, may warp our sense of justice. There is a known cognitive bias called the just-world bias, where we falsely expect justice to be served (we unconsciously believe in karma), and movies can really take advantage of this. How do you explain why the good side was able to defuse the bomb at the last second? Easy, the good side deserved it. (How might this translate into real life? We feel that we deserve something great, so instead of trying for it, we wait for the universe to give it to us.)

Of course, I still enjoy action movies and TV that use “one second left.” But it just gets difficult to keep up suspension of disbelief when the most absurd chance events happen over and over again.

What Is the Best Superpower?

smbc-negative-wishes
From SMBC Comics

We often have discussions in our apartment on the most arbitrary topics. One time, we debated the question: What is the best superpower?

Despite the catchy title, this post is not really about the best superpower. Sure, it talks about that a lot, but that’s not the main point. The main point is about how messy a debate can be when the rules and terms are ill-defined.

What Is a Superpower?

From the start, it was unclear what was meant by “superpower.” It was implicitly understood that something completely all-encompassing like omnipotence is invalid because it is too broad, but this wasn’t formally forbidden. The only thing that was formally forbidden was any superpower than entailed having multiple other superpowers, like wishing for more wishes (but it gets fuzzy as to what counts as one superpower and what counts as multiple).

Being a smart-ass, instead of answering with the usual answers like telekinesis or mind control or invisibility or flying, I suggested the power to move subatomic particles. Let’s just call this particle manipulation for short.

From a naturalist perspective, i.e., physics, particle manipulation encompasses most other plausible powers (hold on for what “plausible” means):

  • To move a large object, you just make quadrillions of quadrillions of particles move in the same direction.
  • To start a fire, you make the particles move faster.
  • To create something out of thin air, or to regenerate any injury, you rearrange particles from the air into atoms and molecules to get what you want.
  • To control someone’s mind, you manipulate the neurons directly and make certain connections fire and others not fire.
  • To defuse a world war, you could just vaporize every nuke into air.
  • To become infinitely rich, you could just turn lead, or any other material, into gold, or into dollar bills.

However, my friend who initiated this discussion, and whose own answer was mind control, thought this answer I gave was “implausible” or “unrealistic.” So what is plausible and implausible? What is realistic and unrealistic?

Doesn’t the word “superpower” imply that it is NOT real? Why does moving a nearby object with your mind seem “realistic”? Does it take a lot of mental power or concentration? Are you limited in the number of objects you can control? Do I always write blog posts that have 7 questions in a row?

Much of our intuition of superpowers comes from the film industry (and thus indirectly from the comic book industry). Before getting bogged down with more philosophical questions, let’s appreciate some good old superpower usage in X-Men: First Class!

Observe the amount of concentration required in the first scene, compared to the relative ease in the second.

The second act is arguably more difficult: it requires control of a scattered collection of objects rather than just one, the control is required at far range, and the change in velocity is much greater. It’s hard to say which is more valid or realistic.

What Powers Are Valid?

Because the particle manipulation power was considered too strong, we decided to forbid it and use only well-known superpowers, to avoid some of the questions as to what was considered a superpower. But this clarification did not come at the beginning, it was more of a change of rules halfway in.

Even so, if you look at the comics, some powers are significantly stronger than portrayed in film. It’s still arguable that Jean Grey’s powers, especially as the Phoenix, are valid and are much stronger than most of the ones we talked about later in the discussion. Even so, do we count these powers separately? Are telepathy and telekinesis separate, or are they included together like in Jean’s case?

Magneto, for instance, is mostly known for him namesake, magnetism. But according to science, electricity and magnetism are really the same force, so does control of magnetism also come with control of electricity? According to Wikipedia:

The primary application of his power is control over magnetism and the manipulation of ferrous and nonferrous metal. While the maximum amount of mass he can manipulate at one time is unknown, he has moved large asteroids several times and effortlessly levitated a 30,000 ton nuclear submarine. His powers extend into the subatomic level (insofar as the electromagnetic force is responsible for chemical bonding), allowing him to manipulate chemical structures and rearrange matter, although this is often a strenuous task. He can manipulate a large number of individual objects simultaneously and has assembled complex machinery with his powers. He can also affect non-metallic and non-magnetic objects to a lesser extent and frequently levitates himself and others. He can also generate electromagnetic pulses of great strength and generate and manipulate electromagnetic energy down to photons. He can turn invisible by warping visible light around his body. […] On occasion he has altered the behavior of gravitational fields around him, which has been suggested as evidence of the existence of a unified field which he can manipulate. He has demonstrated the capacity to produce a wormhole and to safely teleport himself and others via the wormhole.

Thus, from a logical and consistency perspective, I found it difficult to reject the validity of powers such as these. We essentially watered down telekinesis to being able to move objects within X meters and within sight range.

Telekinesis vs Mind Control

Among the remaining, weaker powers, the debate ended up being between telekinesis and mind control. More and more rules were made up on the spot. Once it was established that one power was generally stronger, the other side tried to state some technicality that would limit the power, and thus bring both back to equal levels. At this point, I thought the debate was pointless because we already conceded so many of the better powers, and then kept limiting the remaining powers because of arbitrary, subjective reasons such as being “unrealistic,” which was the main counterpoint. This seems absurd, because you are debating superpowers in the first place—they’re not supposed to be realistic!

It seemed like a debate regarding “What is the highest whole number?” At first we got rid of infinity (omnipotence was not allowed). Getting rid of really strong powers turned into “What is the highest whole number less than 100?” Then when one side says 99, the other side uses a limiting argument basically saying, “The same way numbers over 100 are not allowed, 99 is absurdly high and should not allowed either.” It then becomes “What is the highest whole number less than 99?” And so on.

While there was some semblance to rational debate, it was clear that on the big picture scale, there were essentially no logical points being discussed. It was a matter of imposed fairness. “It’s unfair that your superpower gets to do X and ours does not, so yours is invalid.” But this defeats the purpose of the question in the first place, which was to determine which one was the best. It devolved into the question, “Given that a superpower does not exceed some power level N, what is the best superpower?” Of course, the answer will just be ANY sufficiently good superpower, restricted enough to be at level N. In this case, making up rules on the spot completely defeated the purpose of the question.

Conclusion

There were a bunch of other complications in the debate, but overall it was pretty fruitless. The rules of the debate, namely allowing one to make up rules spontaneously, defeated the purpose of the debate in the first place. It was not completely pointless, however, as it showed the need for setting clear guidelines at the start, and for being consistent.

Rob Ager’s Film Analysis Page

I somehow stumbled upon an analysis of The Shining (yes, the 1980 Kubrick version) that somehow made me feel as if I never saw the film, and as such, I was very impressed. The exterior vs interior hotel layout, the impossible corridors and rooms, the nonsensical locations of windows and doors, and the changing maze—none of these stood out or were let alone apparent in the first viewing.

Rob Ager’s analysis is professional, intellectual, and thought provoking. It is especially impressive that he can do so for a film like The Shining, which does not seem at first to contain any deep or hidden themes.

 

He has also posted analyses of The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which are already deep movies in the first place. In 2001, he argues a fascinating symbolism of the black monolith, which is, according to him, a blank TV screen. The way he presents it, it seems there is overwhelming evidence for this theory, and it is indeed an interesting one. The analysis of the Matrix is just as fascinating.

Among the other film analyses I enjoyed were those for The Thing (1982 version), Alien, Aliens, Starship Troopers, A Clockwork Orange, and Pulp Fiction. One of the major criticisms that he has received is that he may have overanalyzed the intentions or details of various films. However, in the Starship Troopers analysis, he specifically quotes the film directors several years after the film was made, in which the director admitted to hiding certain messages in the film. For some of the Kubrick films, it would be pretty naive not to assume that Kubrick hid meanings everywhere.

If you have watched any of these movies and want to learn some of their truer meanings, or just are a movie fanatic, I strongly recommend his YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/robag88.

The Number 23

It turned out to be one of those movies that seems kind of interesting when you’re watching it, but then, when you’ve finished it, you can’t help but to notice how much time you just wasted. The problem is that The Number 23 takes the paranoia of the number 23 far too seriously, despite some scenes being totally hilarious. It wasn’t clear at certain parts whether we were supposed to laugh or not.

Also, some of the references to 23 seemed way too far-fetched. I thought it was cool that numerous events and even names (by adding their letters) were linked to the number 23, but what crossed the line was linking things to the number 32, which is explained of course as 23 backwards. If anything that adds to 32 can pass, why not just make the title of the film The Number 32 and have all the things that add up to 23 be explained as just 32 backwards? This made absolutely no sense.

Perhaps the funniest event was when Jim Carrey (I don’t really remember any of the names, except for a fictional character that exists in a book inside the movie) explains that a certain person is innocent of a crime just because his numbers don’t add up to 23. Almost by definition, there must be some way to make it add up to 23. In fact, after we watched the movie, some friends and I spent the next two hours turning literally anything we thought of into the number 23. This was probably more of a waste of time than watching the movie itself.

And then of course, the length of the paper that I handed in today was… okay yep, 23 pages. *Cues dramatic music.*

Movies of 2011

Season of the Witch (Jan 2011)

Rating: 2/10

A really unexciting and uninteresting horror movie.

The Green Hornet (Jan 2011)

Rating: 7/10

Hilarious hero comedy, with several innovations and twists. Also contains one of the most ridiculous half-car scenes I’ve ever watched.

Just Go With It (Feb 2011)

Rating: 7/10

Clever and funny. It has a semi-predictable ending, but the ride is enjoyable.

The Adjustment Bureau (Mar 2011)

Rating: 5/10

Brilliant idea, bland execution. There was so much potential in the “adjustment” idea, but unfortunately, it was not fleshed out adequately.

Battle: Los Angeles (Mar 2011)

Rating: 3/10

A mindless war action film.

Limitless (Mar 2011)

Rating: 7/10

Similar to The Adjustment Bureau, this film presents an amazing idea, but then seems to back away from it. Again, the potential was great. The end result was still okay.

The Lincoln Lawyer (Mar 2011)

Rating: 5/10

Not terrible, but I’d rather just watch an episode of Law and Order to save time.

Sucker Punch (Mar 2011)

Rating: 7/10

By far the weirdest movie in this list. It seems to be one thing at first, but when you think about it, it turns into something else. This is great on action and philosophy; however, it is kinda gimmicky on plot.

Insidious (Apr 2011)

Rating: 8/10

A genuinely scary horror movie that had a very smart development. The ending is somewhat slapstick though.

Source Code (Apr 2011)

Rating: 7/10

A film that at least required some degree of thought. It has some interesting moral consequences.

Bridesmaids (May 2011)

Bridesmaids: 7/10

Not my type of movie, but still interesting.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 2011)

Rating: 7/10

Funny and action-packed, but lacking in creativity compared to the other Pirates films.

The Hangover: Part II (May 2011)

Rating: 7/10

Just as funny as the first one.

X-Men: First Class (June 2011)

Rating: 10/10

A very well-done movie. Nothing tops the scene where a submarine is lifted out of the ocean.

Bad Teacher (June 2011)

Rating: 7/10

A very funny movie.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug 2011)

Rating: 8/10

Science and morality are questioned in every step of this chimp’s adventure.

Contagion (Sept 2011)

Rating: 8/10

One of the better outbreak-style films.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Dec 2011)

Rating: 9/10

An epic action thriller.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dec 2011)

Rating: 7/10

Still not sure what to think.