The Problem with Trolleys

What is it about the Trolley Problem that is so compelling? What is the trolley problem you ask. It goes a little like this:

Imagine you are the driver of a trolley that has gone out of control. Ahead of you is a split in the tracks, and you can send your trolley careening down either path. Down one path is a group of people crossing the track. Down the other is one man. You know that whichever path you choose, the people on the track will die. Which way should you go?

Clearly the answer is to go down the path with only one person. It is obviously better that only one person should die rather than five. Of course, it is through no fault of his that he will die. Wrong place, wrong time. That is all.

Of course, that isn’t much of an ethical dilemma. But what happens when we change the situation just a bit?

Imagine you are no longer the driver, but a bystander watching a runaway trolley careen down the tracks. You see it is heading for a group of five people who cannot get out of the way in time. They will die. You also see that there is a split in the path, and down the other path is only one man. You notice you are standing next to the switch. If you flip the switch, the trolley will change tracks and kill the one instead of the five. Should you flip the switch?

This one gets just a little bit harder? Again, it seems like the best choice would be to flip the switch, but it is not as easy a choice as in the first situation. But it really gets hairy when:

Imagine you are standing on a footbridge overlooking the trolley tracks. You see the train is out of control and going to kill the five people ahead of it on the tracks. Standing next to you is a rather large man wearing a huge camping backpack. By pushing this man onto the tracks, you could stop the train, thus saving the lives of the five innocent people who are on the track. Do you push the man onto the track?

BaBAM! What now? What is it about this change in the situation that has changed so drastically the way we think about the problem. In all three cases the choice seems simple: one life, or five? In any case the people who would die are innocent of any crime. They all just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In each case, some death was inevitable. So what makes them different?

This is a common ethical dilemma that we discussed recently in one of my courses. Let me know what you think. And of course, if you feel like learning more about the Trolley Problem, Wikipedia is a great place to start.

On Perfectionism

"If your fidelity to perfection is too high, you never do anything." Those words hit me hard when I read them last week. This is a constant struggle I've had for the last couple years. In my head I have a perfect vision of a completed research project or paper. I knew, though, that there was no chance that the paper I wrote would be nearly as perfect as the one in my head, so it was easier to just leave it there as a perfect dream than to do deal with my horrible writing or completely cobbled-together knowledge of statistics.

The same is true of my blog posts, and so I never wrote them. I'd have a half-baked idea for a post that was magically transformed into an eloquent, powerful, and moving post that would influence the lives of millions. Yeah, that's not gonna happen. But that's what my mind would do. So rather than be a mediocre blogger in real life, I was more content (but not really) to be inspirational in my head.

No longer. This blog post is one of my first on my journey to accept my imperfect real self. It isn't everything I imagined it would be in my head. It will probably be read by fewer than three people. But it is something I have written, and now it exists in the real world.

To quote Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Beginning GTD

As a student, my plate is always full. There are so many things I could be doing at any given time of the day. I fully believe that for the first part of my doctoral program I let that get the better of me. Since there was no way I would ever be finished with all the things I had to do, I often felt a reluctance to do much of anything. I met my deadlines, finished my homework, and even published a few conference papers. But with so much going on around me, and such an unlimited amount of potential work to complete, I was nailed down by analysis paralysis.

After reading several articles about it from Lifehacker, and hearing recommendations from one of my friends here, I finally broke down and bought a digital copy of Getting Things Done This book and the GTD system have allowed me for the first time since I arrived at the University of Arizona to feel like I know what I need to get done and to have a plan to get there. I know, of course, that there is never really "done" in the life of an academic. Of course, there's not really "done" in any life. There are always more things to take on, more projects to complete.

I have tried to do lists in the past. I've been through many. I've tried productivity systems like Pomodoro, but to no avail. They helped me work, but I never really had a clear sense of what ****

Lift and Writing

I got an invite to the web version of Lift, which is an amazingly simple application designed to help you get started and stick with daily habits. It is most beautiful in its simplicity. There is no failure. You simply stop by the website every day and check in with the habits you've completed.

Inspired by recent posts on and Svbtle, I've set a goal for myself to write every day. I have no doubt that this will be a challenging expedition, but a rewarding one. Not everything I post will be published here. Some of it I'm sure will be unfit to publish. Some days I'll spend my writing time working on research papers or proposals. But I really do hope that I can become a better writer simply by doing it more often.

So wish me luck as I begin this new journey. If you like, feel free to follow me on Lift.

Create a new Evernote note from Launchy

I love Evernote. And I love Launchy. But it turns out that combining the two was more difficult than I expected. All I wanted was a way to add a new note to Evernote from Launchy without having to open up Evernote’s whole interface and do all sorts of clicking and such. After a bunch of digging, and a little bit of scripting, I finally created a way to do it.

Take the evernoteadd.bat script and place it anywhere you want. Replace my "_INBOX" with whatever default folder you want these notes to go to. Then simply create a Launchy action in Runner with this batch file as the program, and "$$" "$$" as the arguments. To create a new note from Launchy, type the name of the action you created, hit TAB, type the title of the note TAB text of the note RETURN.

Download the script

UPDATE: Thanks to StackOverflow, I figured out a way to make the script work without a temp file. I’ve updated the script accordingly

Apps I love – Focus@Will edition

I spend a lot of time at my computer. As a student, I write papers and do programming assignments. As a researcher, I read papers, write more, and try to keep on top of what’s going on in the world and especially in my field. As a nerd, I play League of Legends. For all of those besides the last one, I often need to be able to block out distractions and focus on the work at hand. And working either at home with two kids or in an office with 12 other guys can be distracting.

Enter focus@will, my favorite website for providing non-distracting music for reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic (or programming). Focus@will was created by a group of researchers at UCLA and designed specifically to help listeners achieve maximum productivity. The playlists created are designed around 100 minute cycles, shown to be the most productive way to organize work.

The biggest advantage focus@will has over competitors like Pandora and Spotify is that it has been designed to require little to no user input. Preselected categories of music are available, and that’s it. If you hear a song that’s too distracting just skip it and you’ll never hear it again. I had to do this with Stuff We Did from Pixar’s Up. Very good song, but I ended up thinking more about the song than the work, so it had to go. Also, at least for now, there are no ads.

If focus@will doesn’t fit your taste, you can also try musicForProgramming();. I found their tracks just a bit too distracting, but for others it might just fit the bill.

What do you listen to while you work?

Apps I love – BeyondPod edition

Not so very long ago, I used an iPad for a lot of things. One of those things was listen to podcasts. Now, the Apple podcast app came out about that time, and it was a train wreck. Nothing started, there was no way to manage a playlist, and half the time it would just quit. So I moved to Downcast and was a happy camper.

When I started to use my Android phone more, I looked for a podcast app that could match my favorite feature of Downcast: a priority playlist. After trying Pocket Casts, DoggCatcher, and Podkicker, I finally tried BeyondPod. And it nailed it!

For regular podcast listeners who don’t know what a priority playlist is, boy are you missing out. I’ll use my own example to illustrate what a beautiful thing this can be. Here goes:

The beauty of a smart playlist

I listen to 4 podcasts: (1) Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, (2) Car Talk, (3) Freakonomics, and (4) Stuff You Should Know. The first three come out with one episode per week. Stuff You Should Know (SYSK) has an archive of about 500 episodes, and I’ve listened to about 100 of them. I’m slowly working my way through the list. So my ideal listening scenario is to listen to new episodes from (1), (2), and (3), and then fill in the rest of my time with SYSK.

A smart playlist in BeyondPod will let me set this up automagically. When a new episode of any of my first three podcasts shows up, it is automatically downloaded and put at the top of the playlist. Once played, the episdode is removed from the playlist and deleted. For SYSK, I can tell BeyondPod that I want to listen to the 10 oldest, un”read” episodes. Each night, BP goes out and downloads enough episodes to fill my playlist.

It is truly a beautiful thing. I can configure the podcast playlist to automatically be created just how I want it. I haven’t actually opened the app in weeks because all of these things are taken care of by magic.

The best part is that the app comes with a free one week trial of the fully-functioning application. If you decide it doesn’t work for you, no loss. But if you do try it, I highly recommend you take the time to configure SmartPlay to fit your needs. You may, as I did, find that BeyondPod is perfect.

Why I no longer blog with Google+

I'm not a frequent blogger. I've given blogging a go several times in the past five or so years, and it's never really stuck with me. Or rather, I've never really stuck with it. I've done self-hosted WordPress, Drupal, and Jekyll. I also have a Tumblr blog I used for a few months, and an old hosted blog that I've abandoned. Most recently I tried out blogging on Google+ following the advice of G+ addict +Mike Elgan.

In his article about blogging on Google+, Mike makes some really great points. It is very easy to share, connect, comment, and just generally interact with people on G+. Unfortunately, it's not (yet) designed to be a blogging platform.

The biggest limitation I felt when using Google+ as a blog is the inability to have true hyperlinks. Sure, you can have a bunch of links in a post, but URLs are ugly. Nobody wants to see the full URL of an Android application, or even of another Google+ post. So when composing a post, it is limited to the one link that G+ turns into a prettified link at the bottom.

Another issue I have with G+ blogging is the lack of permanence. I use my blog as a way to record things I learn, and hopefully to help others who may run into similar problems that I have. With Google+, I feel like anything older than the past 5 posts disappears. I know it's still there, but there's no easy way for me to get to it. A regular old blog lets me have tags, categories, and an archive. All things that I find useful for organizing my stored knowledge.

So, here I am back on WordPress giving blogging another try. Maybe I'll stick with it, and maybe I won't. But I have given Google+ a fair shake, and it just didn't work out. At least not yet.

Apps I love – Anki edition

Memorization is a tricky beast. It comes in handy when learning a new programming language, a new computer program, a new set of papers with authors and dates, and lots of other places. When learning something you'll use every day, memorization comes naturally. I can pretty quickly learn the basic syntax to a new programming language and be able to crank out "Hello, World!" Because I program somewhat infrequently, though, there are a lot of things, and very useful things, that I only once a month or so.

Enter Anki. Anki is a cross-platform application for creating and reviewing flashcards. But above and beyond your average flash card, Anki creates a schedule for reviewing the cards based on your own needs. If you see a card and immediately know the answer, Anki can stash it away for a week, or even a month once you have reviewed it a few times. For things you are just beginning to learn, Anki can show them every day or every couple days until you've got them down.

The schedule is driven by your own responses as you review the cards. After each card you have the option to mark it as Hard, Good, or Easy. When you see the card next depends on your response. Hard questions are shown again relatively soon, while saying a certain card was Easy will push its next viewing far into the future. You also have the option to view the card again during the same review session. I use this for any card I get wrong, or that takes me too long to remember.

Using the Ankiweb service, cards and progress are kept synchronized between the desktop and mobile applications. This service makes it easy to create a bunch of cards as you're learning new things at the computer, then review them in the waiting room, over breakfast, or (ahem) in the bathroom.

Anki is available for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Apps I love – Pocket edition

This is a ridiculous question, but have you ever found an article online that you wanted to read later? Bookmarks just don’t seem to fit the bill for me in that situation. A bookmark is a commitment. It means I want to keep this site around for reference into forever. Pocket (formerly ReadItLater) fits the bill perfectly here.

The beauty of Pocket is that it’s everywhere. The Chrome extension lets you click a button in the browser and save a page to read later. The Android (or iOS) app lets you save articles from Twitter, the web browser, or a million other apps. It keeps all your saved articles in a queue that you can read either in the app or on the website.

Another beauty of Pocket that beats the heck out of bookmarks is the Archive. I have a record of all the articles that I have saved to read, but it’s kept neatly out of sight. It also lets me tag articles so they can be all organized and stuff. I don’t use that feature much, but I can see how it would be useful.

So pretty much, if you are the kind of person who reads a lot of stories and articles online, look into Pocket. It’s the awesomesauce.


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