Some thoughts on television

March 29, 2009

We have come a long way since John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of the television more than 80 years ago. We now have plasma screens, hundreds of channels and maybe soon TV- on-demand. TV has created a lot of antagonism too as it’s supposed to be undermining our society. Also with the rise of the Internet TV is facing a lot of new challenges.

Television gets blamed for a lot of things- making us stupid, obesity, violence and degrading language. Recently we have had the CSI effect. Apparently because of the aforementioned show and its spin-offs juries are reluctant to convict unless presented with gee-whiz physical evidence even if there is strong evidence against the defendant.  And according to recent research on 30000 people, during the period between 1975 and 2006, conducted by John Robinson and Steven Martin from the State University of Maryland, people who are not satisfied with their lives, spend 30% more time watching TV than satisfied people do.

The big trend of the last decade has been the explosion of reality TV, which features ordinary people in unscripted dramatic or humorous situations. In fact this genre has existed in some form or another since the early years of television, Candid Camera was one such example, the term has really entered public consciousness since 2000. Of course, they are not quite so spontaneous; they often have storyboards and shooting scripts, important tools for shaping the direction of the show. They look to create conflicts between the contestants. Wikipedia has the following typology of these programmes:


Elimination/Game shows



Social experiment

Dating shows

Talk shows

Hidden cameras


There are at least two television channels dedicated exclusively to reality television – Fox Reality in the United States and Zone Reality in the UK. Personally I don’t see the attraction of watching reality shows – I find them artificial and cringe inducing. 

            Of course there is a lot of dross on the box. That doesn’t really bother me. There are some people who feel nostalgia for the days when there were one or two channels and television was supposed to be some kind of common experience. I think that this is. We can be our own programme schedulers.

The role of public television should be vital. It is clear that if I were a shareholder of Antenna 3 here in Spain, I would not be happy if they were showing documentaries about Babylonian astronomy. Their obligation is to make money for their shareholders. That is why I do believe in a public role the question is the size of that involvement. I don’t see the point in doing programmes featuring celebrities dancing. The private sector is perfectly capable of providing such output. I love the BBC, but I do sometimes feel that it is gargantuan. Perhaps we would be well off with something a bit more modest. The public should concentrate on doing what the private sector won’t do.

I feel alienated by Hollywood’s current output. Television in the United States has undergone a revolution. Now the best scriptwriters are working for TV after years of being badly treated in the movie world. Shows such as The Wire,  Mad Men, and The Sopranos  make far more interesting viewing than many films for spectator with a mental age of seven. What I have always liked about TV, as opposed to the movies, is that you establish a relationship with the characters.  I much prefer to watch a TV adaptation of a book. In a film you don’t have enough time to capture the story with television you can do 11 or 12 hours. TV is not really good or bad – it depends what you watch. It’s up to us to demand better programmes.



Some quotes on television

March 29, 2009

All life’s answers are on TV. Homer Simpson.


How can you put on a meaningful drama when, every fifteen minutes, proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?  Rod Serling


I find television to be very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.  Groucho Marx


If you came and you found a strange man… teaching your kids to punch each other, or trying to sell them all kinds of products, you’d kick him right out of the house, but here you are; you come in and the TV is on, and you don’t think twice about it.  Jerome Singer


Today, watching television often means fighting, violence and foul language – and that’s just deciding who gets to hold the remote control.  Donna Gephart


They say that ninety percent of TV is junk.  But, ninety percent of everything is junk.  Gene Roddenberry


Time has convinced me of one thing.  Television is for appearing on, not looking at.  Noel Coward


Television is the first truly democratic culture – the first culture available to everybody and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want.  Clive Barnes


The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little. Ray Bradbury


The idea that the media is there to educate us, or to inform us, is ridiculous because that’s about tenth or eleventh on their list. The first purpose of the media is to sell us shit. Abbie Hoffman


Television: chewing gum for the eyes.  Frank Lloyd Wright


Television has done much for psychiatry by spreading information about it, as well as contributing to the need for it.  Alfred Hitchcock


Ninety-eight percent of American homes have TV sets, which means the people in the other 2% have to generate their own sex and violence.  Gene Baylos


The smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television.  Andrew Ross


Theatre is life.  Cinema is art.  Television is furniture.  Author Unknown


Television enables you to be entertained in your home by people you wouldn’t have in your home. David Frost


So I bought a .44 magnum, it was solid steel cast

And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast

‘Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet

And they busted me for disturbin’ the almighty peace

Judge said “What you got in your defense son?”

“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”

Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on Bruce Springsteen

TV trivia

March 29, 2009

Here is some stuff I found on the Internet:


Lost is the most expensive television show ever filmed.


Peter Falk, who played “Columbo” has a glass eye.


Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius.


The world’s longest running TV drama is Procter & Gamble Productions’ Guiding Light (CBS, USA), which was first aired on 30 June 1952, and is currently broadcast each weekday. Guiding Light was originally broadcast as a 15 min radio serial on WLW Radio in Cincinnati, beginning on 25 January 1937.


Since 1955, television characters have been murdered at a rate 1,000 times higher than real world people. 


The TV sitcom Seinfeld was originally named “The Seinfeld Chronicles”. The pilot, which was broadcast in 1989, also featured a kooky neighbour named Kessler. This character later became known as Kramer.


The average child sees 30,000 television commercials every year.


There wasn’t just one television Lassie, and none of the Lassies was female. The part was played by a series of male dogs.


By the time a child finishes elementary school she will have witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television.


The first couple to be shown in bed together on prime time television were Fred and Wilma Flintstone.


The Simpsons is the longest running TV cartoon in the world. It has also had over 300 celebrities featured.


Daytime dramas are called Soap Operas because they were originally used to advertise soap powder. In America in the early days of television, advertisers would write stories around the use of their soap powder.


The first interracial kiss on TV took place November 22, 1968 between Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner and Lt. Uhura, played by Michelle Nichol on an episode of Star Trek.


MTV first aired at 12:01 AM on August 1, 1981. The first video was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.






My media week 29/03/09

March 29, 2009

Nassim Taleb talks about the financial crisis, how we misunderstand rare events, the fragility of the banking system, the moral hazard of government bailouts, the unprecedented nature of really, really bad events, the contribution of human psychology to misinterpreting probability and the dangers of hubris. The conversation closes with a discussion of religion and probability. Taleb is the author of the books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.


The Onion has this video: Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport.


The world has changed for ever. There is no such thing as a job for life and the certainties of a generation ago are simply a dream to the people at work in today’s ‘runaway world’. At least that is the story we have been told repeatedly but after a close analysis of labour markets in the UK and the US Kevin Doogan tells Laurie that is all a myth. Also, Anthony Giddens talks about how to overcome the dilemmas of climate change politics. This week’s Thinking Allowed podcast.


Frank Furedi has written this piece: After Jade, whose death will we watch next? The salacious reports of Jade Goody’s physical demise confirm that death is the new sex: a form of voyeuristic entertainment.


Libertarian John Stossel attacks The War on Drugs in this article:  The War on Drugs Is Idiotic.

Memories are made of this.

March 21, 2009

Memory is the mother of all wisdom. Aeschylus

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.  From the television show The Wonder Years

The memory should be specially taxed in youth, since it is then that it is strongest and most tenacious. But in choosing the things that should be committed to memory the utmost care and forethought must be exercised; as lessons well learnt in youth are never forgotten.  Arthur Schopenhauer

The palest ink is better than the best memory. Chinese Proverb


Many of you have probably seen the 2001 film Memento. It tells the story of a former insurance investigator, Leonard Shelby, who was attacked by a man, who killed his wife and left him with a brain injury that has made him unable to form new memories. It is a powerful, if somewhat confusing film. What you may not know is that there was a tragic case of a man who suffered from just such a condition. His name was Henry Gustav Molaison, although he was better known as HM. In his childhood after being hit by a bicycle rider, HM had suffered from epileptic seizures and William Beecher Scoville, his surgeon, decided to remove the part of his medial-temporal lobes where the storms originated. In this sense the operation was a success but the collateral damage was terrible. HM woke every day with no memory of what had taken  place the day before. You would speak to him and he would forget everything immediately. He had enormous difficulties with the process of consolidation, i.e. converting short-term memories into permanent storage. He, maintained his older memories, those dating back to before the operation.

Sadly he died in 2008, at the age of 82, but HM made a major contribution to medical science. Scientists now know that there are two kinds of systems in the brain for creating new memories. Declarative memory creates records names, faces, and new experiences. It is situated in the hippocampus. Motor learning is subconscious and depends on different brain systems. The example of riding a bike gives a fascinating insight into how memory works. It is explained very succinctly on the Website How Stuff Works

If you’re riding a bike, the memory of how to operate the bike comes from one set of brain cells; the memory of how to get from here to the end of the block comes from another; the memory of biking safety rules from another; and that nervous feeling you get when a car veers dangerously close, from still another. Yet you’re never aware of these separate mental experiences, nor that they’re coming from all different parts of your brain, because they all work together so well. In fact, experts tell us there is no firm distinction between how you remember and how you think.

            The fallibility of human memory has been amply demonstrated by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. You don’t just record the event and play it back later the way a videotape player would work. We are probably aware of the obvious difficulties of not having a clear view of the situation and the stress. There can be, however, more subtle factors at work such as the way the eyewitness is questioned after the incident; new memories can be implanted and old ones unconsciously altered. Here is an example of how the wording of a question can lead the witness:

How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’

How fast were the cars going when they collided into each other?’

How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?’

How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?

How fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?’

The questions provided very different estimates from the witnesses of the speeds of the drivers:

Smashed 40.8 (mph)

Collided 39.3

Bumped 38.1

Hit 34.0

Contacted 31.8

            But there are also prodigious feats of memory too. We have Dave Farrow who is in The Guinness Book of World Records for memorising the order of 52 decks of cards shuffled together randomly – that is, 2,704 cards! I can’t even remember my mobile phone number! What interests me are the techniques people with this kind of memory use. That marvellous illusionist Derren Brown was able to train Glen Brighton, 40-year-old aviation insurance consultant, to beat the most prestigious teams in the Night of Champions quiz night at a pub in Fulham – on his own. Brighton was able to absorb the contents of hundreds of encyclopaedias and reference books. He used a technique called photoreading  that allows you to mentally photograph a page in a few seconds. Then he created powerful visual images in his head, which enabled him to recall the words with great ease. Dave Farrow gave this example of how to remember that an anti-neutrino is a subatomic particle; he pictures an ant with a newt on its back driving an atomic submarine.

I have Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind and I am taking part in an IH trivia quiz this Friday; I reckon in a week I should be able to get it sussed. In fact, I really won’t be needing a team. It should be a piece of cake. If I could just remember where I left the book…


Ignorance, narcissism, stupidity, hypocrisy and bad grammar

March 21, 2009

In last week’s Observer David Mitchell cited this blog It features a hilarious collection of ignorance, narcissism, stupidity, hypocrisy and bad grammar taken from the Have Your Say section of the BBC website. Here is a selection:


A military muslim interpretor, or translator makes the same money in one year that a contract security guard does in ten years. I think you see the incentive the military muslim interpretors, and translators have in keeping any lucrative muslim/ Christian conflict going-


The way the BBC go on about Obama you’d think he was standing as a candiate for PM of Britain, not President of the US. Where’s all your coverage of John McCain? Oh, he doesn’t fit the PC agenda does he. White man for US President doesn’t have the same multiculti ring as Half Black-Half Muslim for US President does it?


the best way to deal with knife crime in the UK is to invent a time machine and go back to the 1950’s and prevent them from allowing mass immigration. Sorry if people find that offensive but look at the statistics for who carry out most of these crimes, it’s not the indigenous white population is it?


Many here claim that gays are born that way! Let’s for a moment accept that. In a few years or many years later the following say that they’re born that way and are God’s children too:

Murderers, serial killers, mass murderers

Rapists, serial rapists, gang rapists



People indulging in bestiality

WHERE DOES humanity draw a line? Or is it just a case of ‘enough’ people of a particular type getting together and demanding acceptance from the majority? Tell me!


(Writing about “Doctor Who.) The doctor dies and returns as a black, gay, transexual, vertically challanged, doctor who has recently converted to Islam. Well I’m sure that’s how the pc BBC would really like it.


Iran and Syria are laughing at the world and so impressed with the liberal media and Hamas fighting their battle for them. Liberals and the liberal media are happy to insure the obliteration of Israel and the rise of Hamas and terror in the world. Wait till Hamas comes to your neighborhood, but don’t cry for hep.


There isn’t a shred of credible scientific evidence to support the idea that species evolve into other species. There is no plausible theory as to how life/matter/energy came to be out of nothing. Evolution is as scientifically unproven as creationism or any other “ism”. It is interesting to consider all the theories but it is time to stop the presenting evolution as “scientific fact”.


(On Michael Crichton’s death.) Its a strange world where a man who created so much pleasure for others writing medical fiction is struck down by cancer at a ridiculously early age. Makes no sense.


Marriage is, and always has been, a religious belief. Their marriage doesn’t effect my marriage. It does, however, take the societies moral scale and lower it another notch. Eventually the liberal left will be fully in support rampant free sex anywhere with anyone.


the only way that knife crime will be stopped is by hanging those who kill. There is no other way to control this. If these killers are standing over the trapdoor on the scaffold they would then know fear. At the moment there are no deterents and there are no judges that are prepared to put these thugs away for life and mean it. Young people need boundaries and need to have consequences there are none in our society now, l


I think most of the info in online maps is not accurate and correct. If I am wrong, than why dont they track Osama and other Alqada hide outs.


I haven’t heard any really good jokes lately – Political Correctness has killed them all.


It high time the UK people woke up and got rid of this Labour Goverment. There policy is spend spend , as they did in 1970. I really feel sorry for you UK people , because there will be no day light from this mess for ever. The UK will end up a third world country and will now have main problems to face from letting so main people arrive . I left the UK 3 years ago, what i once called my home and moved to Spain. I now have Spanish passport and given my Uk passport . I wish you all the best


Even though I am law abiding I find that my attitude to the Police has changed over the last decade or so. I now actually avoid and fear the police in case any interaction leads them to decide that they need to sample my DNA and add it to their database. When they have your DNA it’s creepy – almost like they can read your sole.


The lack of moral fibre at the BBC is a symptom of todays sick and vile society. Whatever happened to good, honest broadcasting? I for one do not want to see genetalia on my radio!


when I were a lad and we had weather WORSE than this, we were made to stand in front of our desks and jump up and down to get warm – the bottles of free school milk would be frozen


I find it frightening that a character was seen injecting alcohol into an orange. I feel that this could give ideas to terrorists about how to poison fruit.


Steve Wright said the temperature was 23 degrees Celsius. He should have said 78 degrees Fahrenheit, which I consider English.


this experiment is a complete waste of time. we cannot destroy the whole earth, only God can.


Why was this ‘built’ underground? Simple, it does not exist. It’s a big con. It’s the same reason India/Pakistan allegedly conducted nuclear explosions underground simply because they never happened in the first place. Why? Because nuclear bombs don’t exist and they never have existed. FACT! Hollywood and the people behind Hollywood (the rich elite race) came up with the propoganda to fool the ‘Sheople’. They’ll keep taking your money though to fund their lavish lifestyles.


Murder is murder and should be punishable by life in a proper jail, not the 5 star hotels they are kept in now. Anyone committing murder is scum and has no right to enjoyable life, the person they killed doesn’t get a second chance at life so neither should these people. No rehab, no time off for good behaviour, no privileges, just sit in a conrete cell until death because that’s what is deserved.


My husband has been trying to get into teacherrs training for 3 years now, there seems to be a brick wall at every turn, to be quite honest i think it is because they are looking for more enthnic minorities in our area rather than the educated working class white.


My media week 22/03/09

March 21, 2009


This ABC Rear Vision podcast looks more closely at the social and cultural history of coffee, tracking the changes in the way we consume it and how we think about it.


Atheist Julian Baggini writes this critique of New Atheism in The New Atheist Movement is destructive.


This ABC podcast from The Philosopher’s Zone delves into whether business ethics enable us to draw lines between culpability, incompetence and culpable incompetence? And are the ethics of the media totally compromised by spin and image manipulation? It’s called Understanding and blame while the money runs out.


This fascinating article from looks at how perceptions of space exploration are coloured by ideology.


The Independent has an interview with James Lovelock famous for his Gaia hypothesis, a theory that the living organisms of the biosphere form a single, complex interacting system that creates and maintains a habitable Earth; named after Gaia, the Greek Earth mother goddess.


These two pieces come from The Onion: Tree Featured In ‘The Deer Hunter’ Dies and U.S. Troops In Iraq Excited To Finally Return To Afghanistan

Philosophise Me

March 14, 2009

What do Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Philip K. Dick and Vaclav Havel have in common? They all studied philosophy at university. In fact, philosophy has been taught in Western society for over two and a half millennia. What is it? I found the following definition on Google: “the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics.” Perhaps it is easier to understand if we consider the type of questions philosophers ask? Who am I? What is good? Why be moral? What makes something a work of art? To what extent can anything be proven? Is it possible to create thinking machines? What is justice? Is there an afterlife and what is it like?

Why should we study philosophy? Philosophy has been maligned as being divorced from reality. Sometimes philosophers do invite ridicule, especially if they are French. This is an example from A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.  :

“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multidimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously. A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irreversibility, ontological and phylogenetic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogenesis and autopoiesis. The notion of scale needs to be expanded to consider fractal symmetries in ontological terms.” I pity the poor translator! But philosophy doesn’t have to be like that. It can be a wonderful window on the world. It does not teach us what to think but how to think. Among other things it gives a good grounding in logic, reasoning, the ability to understand complex issues, open-mindedness, precision, how to identify fallacies and how to improve our general reading, writing, and communication skills. But it is more than that because it fulfils a natural human desire to reflect upon fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it. I also think it would be a brilliant way to learn English and practise all the basic skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing. With a group of six students you could meet in a café to discuss philosophical topics. There is a lot of reading material and audio on the Internet, which could form the basis for discussion in the class. A teacher I used to work with told me this idea and I have always thought it would be a very productive way to learn English (This kind of tutorial would work equally well with economics, history or literature.)

            How it should be taught. I don’t know the situation now but when I was at school in the UK we didn’t study any philosophy. This is a terrible gap in my education, which I have been trying to make up for over the last few years. Philosophy is not an easy subject but if it can be taught in a dynamic way using stories and thought experiments, then there is no reason for it to be boring.  The book that opened my eyes to the beauty of philosophy was Sophie’s World (Sofies Verden in the original Danish) by Jostein Gaarder. It is both a novel and a basic introduction to philosophy and should be compulsory reading for adolescents.

Sophie’s World is just one example of philosophy in popular culture; it permeates our society through books news, movies, music, games, or even in casual conversation. The Matrix, The Simpsons, Memento, Being John Malkovich and Crimes and Misdemeanours can all be used to teach philosophical concepts. Personally, my favourite is a 2001 film, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, an animated story about a nameless young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, who finds himself trapped in a continuous series of dreams. The film is a tour-de-force, a guided tour of current trends in philosophy. This heady mix of conversations monologues, debates, rants, and philosophical speculation is just an amazing experience. The cinematography is also very original; it was shot with real actors using digital video and then a team of artists using computers drew stylised lines and colours over each frame.

In 2005 the BBC’s In Our Time programme organised a vote to decide The Greatest Philosopher, with Karl Marx coming out on top. Obviously I would not have voted for the hirsute German but I do have my favourites. I would start with Socrates. The Socratic method is such a fascinating way of teaching.  He would go around the agora asking apparently innocent questions. But they would trap his interlocutors into contradicting themselves. I like the balance Epicurus found between pleasure and moderation. As a sceptic, I love Hume – I am very much into that pragmatic English empiricism. Finally I have to mention Karl Popper with his falsification theory and his defence of an open society. They are all part of how I see the world.

        I hope I have been able to whet your appetite and I haven’t even mentioned world philosophy.  Doing philosophy can be fun and stimulating. It can become part of anyone’s life. So next time you’re sitting in front of the TV watching some vacuous reality show, remember: More Plato, less Big Brother.


Some philosophical thought experiments #1

March 14, 2009

The field of philosophy makes extensive use of thought experiments and I have trawled the web to bring you some of my favourites:


The Trolley problem 

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch? Consider another, similar dilemma. You’re walking along the track again, you notice the trolley is out of control, although this time there is no auxiliary track. But there is a man within arm’s reach, between you and the track. He’s large enough to stop the runaway trolley. You can save the five people on the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks, stopping the out-of-control vehicle, but you’ll kill the man by using him to stop the trolley. Again, what do you do?


The brain in a vat is an element used in a variety of thought experiments intended to draw out certain features of our ideas of knowledge, reality, truth, mind, and meaning. It is drawn from the idea, common to many science fiction stories, that a mad scientist might remove a person’s brain from the body, suspend it in a vat of life-sustaining liquid, and connect its neurons by wires to a supercomputer which would provide it with electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives. According to such stories, the computer would then be simulating a virtual reality (including appropriate responses to the brain’s own output) and the person with the “disembodied” brain would continue to have perfectly normal conscious experiences without these being related to objects or events in the real world.


How many men? 

How many men? is a thought experiment often used by anarcho-capitalists as a moral argument for showing that taxation is theft. There are many variations of it, but one begins with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the equation, with the identity of the aggressor gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; to a gang of twenty men who not only take votes but have specialization of labour; to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft become the alleged morality of taxation. The argument may be seen as an example of the Sorites Paradox. In a classic example of this paradox, removing one hair from a person’s head does not make them bald, but by the time the last hair is removed, they have become bald.


Mary’s room

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?


Plank of Carneades

There are two shipwrecked sailors, A and B. They both see a plank that can only support one of them and both of them swim towards it. Sailor A gets to the plank first. Sailor B, who is going to drown, pushes A off and away from the plank and, thus, ultimately, causes A to drown. Sailor B gets on the plank and is later saved by a rescue team. The thought experiment poses the question of whether Sailor B can be tried for murder because if B had to kill A in order to live, then it would arguably be in self-defence. The English case of R. v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) established that necessity is no defence against a charge of murder.


Ticking time bomb scenario

The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment that has been used in the ethics debate over whether torture can ever be justified. Simply stated, the consequentialist argument is that nations, even those such as the United States that legally disallow torture, can justify its use if they have a suspect in custody whom they feel sure possesses critical knowledge, such as the location of a time bomb or a weapon of mass destruction that will soon explode and cause great loss of life.

The infinite monkey theorem

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. In this context, “almost surely” is a mathematical term with a precise meaning, and the “monkey” is not an actual monkey; rather, it is a metaphor for an abstract device that produces a random sequence of letters ad infinitum. The theorem illustrates the perils of reasoning about infinity by imagining a vast but finite number, and vice versa. The probability of a monkey typing a given string of text exactly, as long as, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is so tiny that, were the experiment conducted, the chance of it actually occurring during a span of time of the order of the age of the universe is minuscule but not zero. Variants of the theorem include multiple and even infinitely many typists, and the target text varies between an entire library and a single sentence. The history of these statements can be traced back to Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption and Cicero’s De natura deorum, through Blaise Pascal and Jonathan Swift, and finally to modern statements with their iconic typewriters. In the early 20th century, Émile Borel and Arthur Eddington used the theorem to illustrate the timescales implicit in the foundations of statistical mechanics. Various Christian apologists on the one hand, and Richard Dawkins on the other, have argued about the appropriateness of the monkeys as a metaphor for evolution. Today, popular interest in the typing monkeys is sustained by numerous appearances in literature, television, radio, music, and the Internet. In 2003, an experiment was performed with six Celebes Crested Macaques, but their literary contribution was five pages consisting largely of the letter ‘S’


The Experience Machine

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s desires?…Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?

Philosophical Movies: a list

March 14, 2009

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Barton Fink

Being John Malkovich



Crimes and Misdemeanors


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Fahrenheit 451

Fight Club


Groundhog Day

I, Robot


Last Year at Marienbad


Minority Report

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

My Dinner with Andre

On the Beach


Open Your Eyes (aka Abre Los Ojos)

Pi: Faith in Chaos

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead



The Man With Two Brains

The Matrix

The Seventh Seal

The Trial

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Total Recall

Waking Life

Wild Strawberries