Archive for the ‘ Blog ’ Category

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.