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Wordle: Browns' conference speech 09

(Blowing a little dust off this blog with a cheap post. Now back to the thesis…)


Well, since I pondered the possibility of combining philosophy and twitter, someone has gone ahead and done it!

They went for ” best Twitter tweet-length philosophical argument”

Overall winner: Ordinary objects are mereological sums. Objects can change parts, so sums can too.  (by Mark Steen)

Carrie Jenkins announced her winner here, and the full list of awards can be found here, and the full list of entries here.

This might not be very interesting for you. In case you are interested, I don’t find the argument presented by Steen very persuasive. I’m sure you don’t care why.


At the end of the last post I flippantly mentioned that the Lottery is an easy way to take money from people who are bad at maths.

The Maverick Philosopher has recently posted about the poor evaluational abilities of The Lottery Player. In short he claims that they both overvalue and undervalue money:

The lottery player, therefore, overvalues money in that he thinks it will provide things it cannot possibly provide: happiness, satisfaction, meaning, love. But he also undervalues it in that he wastes it on lottery tickets!

Whilst I don’t think Bill is wrong here, I think there is an alternative way to view what is going on that sheds more light on the matter. My suggestion is that the lottery player undervalues what he or she now has, and overvalues what he or she might have in the future.

She overvalues a future possibility in two ways. Firstly,  she overvalues being in a position now that possibly she might win a lot of money in the future. She thinks that such a state of affairs is worth spending money on(buying tickets) to have now. I suggest that there is very little value in having this modal property (as philosophers would put it) i.e having the property that you might win the lottery in the future and become rich, given just how slim a possibility it is.

Secondly, she overvalues the sate of affairs in the future of being very rich. I think this for very much the same reason that Bill thinks this: it will not bring ‘happiness, satisfaction, meaning, love’ etc.

So she says ‘isn’t it great that I might win the lottery and become very rich?’ and I say no, its not that great. The chances are stupidly slim and it is not worth spending money on.

Then she says ‘wouldn’t it be great to win the lottery and become very rich?’. And again I say, no, not that great.

Ok, so what of undervaluing? The Lottery Player undervalues what he has now. He has a certain amount of money now, and a certain way of life that that money affords. He undervalues the riches that he currently has (and it is riches, relative to much of the world) by using some of it to try and obtain something else in the future via lottery tickets which are surely worth considerably less than he pays for them (given the above points).

It is a bit like the guy who ends every meaningful relationship that he gets into because the girl doesn’t look like the woman on the front of his Lads Mag. He overvalues the (very slim) possibility of being in a relationship with That Girl (it would surely disappoint) and undervalues the meaningful relationships that he drops along the way.

Who doesn’t like a brief maths problem now and then?

Marcus du Sautoy, writing for The Times Online, placed this conundrum at the end of his article:


Let’s play a game. I’ll keep tossing a coin until one of the following two outcomes occurs. If heads, heads, tails, appears first then I’ll pay you £20. However, if it’s tails, heads, heads, then you pay me £10. Should you play?


No. It is three times more likely that tails, heads, heads appears. There are four possibilities for the opening two tosses: heads, heads; heads, tails; tails, heads; tails, tails. In the case of heads, heads, I can’t beat you. You just have to wait for a tail to appear. However, in the other three cases you can’t beat me. The first occurrence of heads, heads must be preceded by a tail, giving me the win.

Now on the face of it, this just seems wrong, as a number of commentators pointed out. There are 8 possible outcomes for three coin tosses, and you will win 1 in 8 and lose 1 in 8, so you should play the game (taking £20 each time you win and giving £10 each time you lose).

The problem, though, is not that Marcus is wrong, just that he doesn’t do a great job of explaining his result. For the sake of those not convinced by his explanation, here’s my attempt:

The idea is that we just keep tossing until one or the other sequence appears. Now we both need two heads in a row to win. However, you need your two heads to be followed immediately by a tail. All I need is that a tail immediately precede the two heads. Hence the only way you can achieve your sequence without me achieving mine first is if the first two tosses are heads (ruling out the possibility of them being preceded by a tails).

The other three combinations of pairs of starting tosses will result in my win because the first two heads that appear in a row will have to have been preceded by a tails (otherwise they won’t have been the first two heads in a row). So I win three out of four times.

Ok, so perhaps that’s just what he said but longer, but an interesting problem all the same. Of course, there are easier ways of taking money from people who are bad a maths, like the national lottery.

Right now the votes are being counted for the Manchester congestion charge. The charge is hefty and radical. Drivers who travel at all the wrong times will pay up to £1200 a year extra if it is voted in. £3 Billion will be spent on public transport if it is voted in.

I cycle into Manchester and so will get all the benefits (quieter, safer, cleaner roads) at very little extra cost. At the most I will have to  re-think those few peak time trips that I do make.  I guess that means I’m bound to vote yes.  But it would be nice if I had some less selfish reasons for my decision.

A friend of mine,Matt Wilson,  recently blogged a dilemma he was in: on the one hand he dislikes traffic jams, on the other he think the congestion charge is unjust:

I consider the T.I.F. proposals to be fundamentally unjust at the core. No investment in roads, but all the cash drivers pay goes to subsidise other people’s travel (I generalise), that’s just wrong.

That’s a strong charge, and should make anyone looking for ‘objective’ reasons to vote sit up and take notice. (By objective reasons, I just mean reasons that aren’t based on purely personal impact.) I wouldn’t want to have voted for an unjust act just because it benefits me.

Is it a fair charge against the charge? On the face of it it seems persuasive (especially if you are a driver, I guess). But we might notice that taxing one group of people for the benefit of another group is common practice in a society like ours. Redistributive tax (income/ inheritance etc) does just that. We take money from those who have a lot to support those who have very little.

Now there are clear differences,  I’m not suggesting it is like for like, but it is sometimes claimed that in cases of redistributive tax, those charged a lot do benefit by being part of a more stable and equal society etc. Here there is a parallel: it is reasonable to think that everyone will benefit from having better public transport and quieter roads.

Still, I don’t think that is enough to mitigate Matt’s charge of injustice. If we all benefit, why don’t we all pay?

Here is a better response: justice takes a wider scope than any one transaction. Justice must be more than about who pays for what and who gets what. Charging drivers isn’t just about paying for better transport for other people, it is about changing the status quo. It is about looking at Manchester and the world and thinking that something has to change.

We put in place clean air acts and carbon charges because we think it is no longer ok for things to carry on as they are. So if we think it is no longer OK to carry on with such a high dependence on petrol and personalised motorised transport, perhaps we should be willing to put some serious measures in place to try and achieve change.

This is still a long way short of conclusive, but it perhaps takes some of the punch of Matt’s argument from injustice.

Normblog recently had a link to the GenderAnalyzer – a briefly curious bit of fun for anyone who writes on the web.

Said website is 87% sure that this blog is written by a man, only 13% short of the writers own estimation. Not bad, considering.

However, it is 70% sure that my previous blog was written by a woman.

That’s quite a swing from one blog to the next, and I’ve been male my life. Interestingly, however, I was very deliberate with the style shift from the old to the new. Where before I wrote more creatively, poetically and descriptively, I now include a lot more comment, opinion and factual content.

Perhaps I have lost touch with my feminine side.

I’d like you to know

This morning I was stung by

A Wasp! In my neck.

So it turns out that Acer Aspire One is a bit of a hot topic and many people arrive at this blog looking for information about the Aspire One. They must then be a little disappointed when all they find is this post. It saddens me that so many people might visit only to leave unsatisfied.

i got one of those...

i got one of those...

Because of this I feel an obligation to provide something more useful for those hopeful google searchers. So here you go:

Before you buy.

So you’re thinking you’d like one of those mini laptops but you’re not sure which one. Let’s get one thing straight. You’ll make a choice, and hopefully you’ll be happy with that choice, and you’ll be especially happy because it was your choice and in the end you won’t know how you could have ever chosen differently (perhaps). But you’ll never be sure.

Perhaps you’ve even decided that you’ll go for the Acer Aspire One over the other options (eeePc, MSI Wind, Advent etc) because it has a better keyboard than the eee and costs much less than the Wind (or something). Good so far.

But then, there are numerous versions of the Acer Aspire One – which to choose?! Here you have to balance a few things: cost, need, and that old beast, irrational consumerist desire.

For me, my need wasn’t extreme and so cost was particularly important. Furthermore, my irrational consumerist desire was tilted heavily towards lowcost and simple (handy, that).

But what about you? You have prices between £180 and £300. Then you have to choose between Windows Xp and Linux. Linux is considerably cheaper, will boot up and shut down more quickly, but may well be less familiar to you. Also, to extend its functionality requires a little bit of geekery.

After that, you have to make a storage choice. Do you want a 120 gb hard disk drive (HDD) or an 8gb solid state drive (SSD)? From amazon the 120 gb drive will only cost you £20 more, but also .25 of a kilo in weight. Best choice if you don’t mind about the weight, and you want to store video/ music/ pictures etc. I don’t think speed and reliability differ much. Also, if you choose XP, you’re going to be better off with more than 8gb of space.

Now do you want 512mb ram or 1gb of ram? Those with the money and an affinity for Windows probably will go for 1gb. 512 is plenty for linux and all that I wanted it to do.

Finally (why so many choices?) choose your colour. White and blue are the main options, though I think in some places you can get brown and pink. The colour choice will be down to irrational consumerist desire. Oddly the white models are cheaper, but I was willing to pay £19 more for a blue one, the same in every other respect. Stupid, I know.

I opted for A110 Ab – That’s Linux with 8gb storage, 512 mb ram, and blue. Why? It mattered to me that it cost less that £200 pounds, I wanted to give linux a try, and I didn’t want to carry round (lots of) pictures and music and video.

I think I made the right choice for me. I’m sure you’ll do the same for you. The Linux distribution it ships with is great – light and fast – but be aware that if you start tweaking it you’ll have to invest some time and you might come up against some minor glitches and problems that the stability of Win Xp had helped us forget about.

So you’ve bought a linux model, now what?

If you opted for XP, great, have fun. But if you opted for linux, the following might be useful.

The following sites provide a wealth of information about how to role up your sleeves and get a bit geeky with your Acer Aspire One (AA1).

Top Ten Tweaks (a great place to start)
Top 30 Hacks (including tweaks)
aspireoneuser blog and forum (plenty to read through if you have the time)
macles* (massively useful and comprehensive blog about the AA1)

So that you can:

  • install firefox
  • install thunderbird
  • access the advanced menu
  • sort out the noisy fan
  • tweak to speed up the hard drive (SSD only)
  • get a proper desktop and not the fisher price one it comes with
  • The AA1 ships with this desktop. A bit noddy for you?

    The AA1 ships with this desktop. A bit noddy for you?

  • install skype
  • install the vpn client
  • upgrade to 3
  • add your own desktop background
  • play chess

Apply a nice shiny grown-up desktop...

etc etc

ok. enough of this geekery. I hope this has been of some use to someone. And now back to my usual blogging.

A couple of things caught my attention on the web today.

Firstly, Norman Geras at normblog comments on comments on the BBC’s God on Trial. He is unhappy with what Justin Thacker has to say about people of faith responding to massive suffering and injustice:

even though they may not be able to explain why God would allow this particular event to occur, they know that the God who on countless other occasions has demonstrated his love and compassion must have a reason. (Justin Thacker)

According to Geras, this is to believe in a God…

…who reconciles the faithful to an acceptance of human barbarism, gives them the satisfaction of knowing that He has a reason for allowing it, justifies it indeed by reference to some ‘greater good’.

Such theological solutions to the problem of suffering  offend Geras’ unbelieving intuitions. He is an atheist, but seems to think that if there was a God, He wouldn’t be that kind of God.

I think I agree. In an attempt to understand and maintain the sovereignty of God we speak of God ‘allowing’ events that we deem to be evil or otherwise negative. But this so easily places quite a high level of complicit agency onto God. If God allowed a genocide for the ‘greater good’, then would we have been acting against God’s interests to stop it? Do Gods actions becoming telling in their absence?

Perhaps God has deliberately tied his own hands, maybe as a condition of us having free will. I think I prefer that to the ‘It’s all part of a bigger plan’ solution. (I’m not ashamed to say my journey of faith is a journey of questions).

Then I saw this light hearted piece on the LHC at Cern (that’s the huge piece of science kit being turned on Wednesday).

Leo Hickman considers the the possibility of the LCH bringing our solar system to a swift and unfortunate end by accidentally creating an apocalyptic black hole. Apparently there a few doomsayers who are actually a little worried this might happen. Then Hickman asks:

How would religion fit into this end-of-the-world scenario? … Would people flock to their nearest church, mosque, synagogue or temple seeking salvation? Or would people feel abandoned by their god(s)?

Now, I don’t think the LHC will bring the end of the world. This isn’t because of sceintifc assurance, but because (if I’m honest) the thought of it is so outrageous that I can’t imagine seriously holding it as a belief.

But my question is, would God intervene to stop the end of the world if it was triggered by a hapless scientist in circumstances outside of His intentions?. Or would he allow it to happen in accordance with our having free will?  Or would He allow it as part of  the ‘greater good’ (which would then imply it was in line with His intentions)? Perhaps such a Douglas Adams ending would be the best way for us all to go.

Answers on a postcard/thesis.


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