It used to be the case that fans of Auburn University’s football team would gather after victories at Toomer’s corner in Auburn, Alabama, to throw rolls of toilet paper into the historic oak trees there. The trees have been removed. Not because Auburn University wanted it that way: Harvey Updyke, a fan of the University of Alabama’s football team – Auburn’s hated cross-state rival – poisoned the trees in 2010. Updyke was caught when he called in to a local sports radio show to brag about the deed. He was charged with criminal mischief, desecrating a venerated object and damaging agriculture. Although he initially pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, he later made a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to criminal damage of an agricultural facility. He served six months in jail, and was released in June of this year.
This is of course a bad situation. I’ve been to football games at Auburn, and though I sport-hate their football team, the celebration at Toomer’s corner was a great tradition and the trees, themselves, were beautiful. I don’t wish to pass more judgment on Updyke, but rather to reflection on an ethical question his action raises. Continue reading
Last week Pieter Bonte gave a St. Cross seminar titled “Neither God nor Nature. Could the doping sinner be an exemplar of human(ist) dignity?” The talk is online as a mp3.
Here are some of my notes:
Last week, Canadian researchers published a study showing that some modern slot machines ‘trick’ players – by way of their physiology – into feeling like they are winning when in fact they are losing. The researchers describe the phenomenon of ‘losses disguised as wins’, in which net losses involving some winning lines are experienced in the same way as net wins due to physiological responses to the accompanying sounds and lights. The obvious worry is that players who are tricked into thinking they’re winning will keep playing longer and motivate them to come back to try again.
The game set up is as follows: players bet on 15 lines simultaneously, any of which they might win or lose. A player will accrue a net profit if the total amount collected from all winning lines is greater than the total amount wagered on all 15 lines. Such an outcome is accompanied by lights and sounds announcing the wins. However, lights and sounds will also be played if any of the lines win, even if the net amount collected is less than the total amount wagered on all 15 lines. If a player bets 5 credits per line (5 x 15 = 75) and wins 10 back from 3 (= 30), then the player has actually lost money, even though the lights and sounds indicate winning. The loss, the researchers claim, is thus disguised as a win. Continue reading
Over about 14 months, Harry Kakavas lost $20.5 million in a casino in Melbourne. It could have been worse. He put about $1.5 billion on the table. He sued the casino. It knew or should have known, he said, that he was a pathological gambler. It shouldn’t have continued to take his money. It should have protected him from himself. Nonsense, said the High Court of Australia.
‘Even if, contrary to the findings of the primary judge, the appellant did suffer from a psychological impairment, the issue here is whether, in all the circumstances of the relationship between the appellant and Crown, it was sufficiently evident to Crown that the appellant was so beset by that difficulty that he was unable to make worthwhile decisions in his own interests while gambling at Crown’s casino. On the findings of fact made by the primary judge as to the course of dealings between the parties, the appellant did not show that his gambling losses were the product of the exploitation of a disability, special to the appellant, which was evident to Crown.
Equitable intervention to deprive a party of the benefit of its bargain on the basis that it was procured by unfair exploitation of the weakness of the other party requires proof of a predatory state of mind. Heedlessness of, or indifference to, the best interests of the other party is not sufficient for this purpose. The principle is not engaged by mere inadvertence, or even indifference, to the circumstances of the other party to an arm’s length commercial transaction. Inadvertence, or indifference, falls short of the victimisation or exploitation with which the principle is concerned.‘ (paras 160-161 of the judgment).
So it all turned on findings of fact (it wasn’t ‘sufficiently evident’ that his losses were the result of a disability, and if they were, they weren’t the product of a disability ‘special to the appellant.’)
That last criterion is interesting. The court seems to be implying that everyone who puts themselves in the position of losing large amounts of money in a casino is necessarily not quite right in the head. To establish liability you need a degree of vulnerability over and above that possessed by the ordinary punter. By accepting the trial judge’s finding that Kakavas did not suffer from a ‘psychological impairment’, the court was presumably saying: ‘Right: so Kakavas is weak and easily exploited: but that’s true of everyone who walks through the door, buys some chips and sits down at the table. That sort of weakness is within the general bell curve of human flabbiness. But Kakavas wasn’t particularly, dramatically, visibly weak.’ Continue reading
In 1920, Jackson Scholz set the men’s 100m world record at 10.6 seconds. The 100m race is one where progress is very hard; we’re getting towards the limit of human possibility. It’s very tricky to squeeze out another second or fraction of a second. Still, in 2009, Usain Bolt set the men’s 100m world record at 9.58 seconds.
Apart from the Bolt, who else today can run faster than Jackson Scholz? Well, the fastest 16 year old ran the 100m in 10.27 second. The visually impaired world record is 10.46 seconds. The woman’s world record is 10.49 seconds.
The point of this extended metaphor is that we are focused on the differences we see today: between teenagers and adults, between men and women, between the able-bodied and those not. But the difference that swamps all of these is the difference between the present and the past. In 1920, prohibition had just been instituted in the USA. Some women were voting for the first time, though most couldn’t (neither could most men, in fact). The British empire was at its height, communism had just triumphed in Russia (the only country in the world to legalise abortion), homosexuality was a crime in most places, GDP was about a 30th of what it is now, life expectancy was 54 in the USA and tuberculosis was incurable.
How dissimilar will the world look like in 2099, then? More dissimilar that any difference we can see by looking around the world today. People will think differently, act differently, and have completely different lives and opinions, to anything that currently exists.
Julian Savulescu brings an interesting and characteristically uncompromising philosophical perspective today to the Badminton scandal in which four pairs were disqualified from the Olympics for intending to lose their matches in order to obtain a preferred draw in the next round. The players were ejected for violating parts of the Players’ Code of Conduct that is set by the governing body of the sport: the Badminton World Federation (BWF). In particular, they were found to have violated sections 4.5 and 4.16 of the Code, which respectively prohibit “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”
Savulescu argues that the players should not have been disqualified, and that the rules for the draw should be changed. He is right the rules for the draw should be changed: they should be designed so that winning a match always confers on the players some advantage in the tournament, or at least never a disadvantage. Why not, for example, simply let the most successful teams choose first who they will face in the next round? One questionable feature of this week’s events is that the badly formulated rules for the format of the draw were instituted by the BWF. So the BWF, acting as legislator, judge and jury on the conduct of the players, itself had a vested interest in shifting the blame for the fiasco of non-competitive games onto the players themselves.
Still, it is reasonable to ask whether it would have been right for a properly impartial judging body to disqualify the players in this case. Savulescu’s post suggests, as far as I can see, four arguments against:
A) The players were using a strategy to win the tournament, and logically, a strategy cannot be abusive or detrimental to the sport.
B) The rules are not clear.
C) The rules are absurd.
D) The rules depend on a distinction between intending and foreseeing which is philosophically unsustainable.
So let’s assess these four arguments.
In September 2011 ,the most advanced computer game to use a consumer brain computer interface (BCI) will go on sale. Its name is Focus Pocus (see video trailer here, its awesome) and it is aimed at children with ADHD so that they might use gamification to train their brains to improve focus and impulse control.
The game is based on neurofeedback enabled by the use of the Neurosky dry-electrode EEG (Electro-EncephaloGram) headset, which anyone can purchase for under $100 (or 100 Euros if in Europe) Earlier this week, BBC2 did a special on the headset. The basic Idea is that the single electrode on the Neurosky headset (placed on the forehead) is able to pick up a few simple and characteristic brainwaves (created by activity in populations of neurons), some that have been shown to be enriched when the subject is awake and attentive (ex. Beta-waves), and some when the subject is relaxed (ex. alpha waves). Neurosky has developed algorithms to funnel these and other brain waves into measures of “focus” and “meditation.” Look here for more details on how it works.
Serious warning: this post contains nudity, images of graphic video-game violence, and detailed descriptions of rape and torture. The intended audience for this post is adults.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week, in a 7-of-9 majority, that the State of California may not prohibit the sale of violent video games to minors. Such a ban, the majority argued, restricts the free speech rights of the video-game manufacturers, and is therefore unconstitutional. Read the ruling here.
[note: the original version of this post contained some interactive code, which has been removed from the archives]
A new report released by the US Surgeon General last month reminds us that cigarettes are designed with addiction in mind. Tobacco companies infuse tobacco with ammonia so that the nicotine crosses the membranes in the lungs faster, reducing the delay between inhalation and pharmacological effect. They add flavourings like chocolate and vanilla to the blend, knowing that smokers will be more likely to smell something in their food that they associate with smoking, and to feel like lighting up. These tricks are a source of moral outrage for many of us; it seems as though the tobacco companies are exploiting weaknesses in our biology to make us buy things we would not otherwise have bought, and to do things we would not otherwise have done (or would not have done so much). And tobacco executives have often denied engaging in these kinds of tactics.
All this makes for an interesting contrast with the case of video games, in which addictiveness is universally held to be one of the hallmarks of an excellent game, in which games can win awards for being addictive, and in which a developer can unabashedly boast of putting the most addictive systems into their games.