On morality (a rambling train of thought…)
November 23, 2010, 6:40 pm
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I believe it’s important for every person to think about what morality means, and what it means to live a morally good life. God that sounds so earnest and, well, unironic, that I cringed while typing it. But there you go.

So, morality. We tend to assume (well I tend to assume) that it is obvious what is moral, so obvious that it isn’t even worth spelling it out. But then you think about it for a while and it becomes more complicated than you could have imagined.

First off. When you do something that’s morally bad you feel guilt. That’s the purpose of guilt – it encourages us to live according to our moral principles by punishing us when we fail to do so. Except when I think of the last ten times that I heard someone say “I feel guilty” or something similar, they weren’t talking about anything to do with morality at all, they were talking about having eaten delicious foods that were high in sugar and fat. “I ate a whole pizza, and now I feel so guilty!”, “These brownies are sinful – go on, be bad!” How is eating chocolate cake and ice cream a moral question?

I asked a psychologist friend and he explained to me that integrating with the group is very important to us humans. Whenever we do something that goes against the accepted social mores of our culture, we feel guilt. It’s about needing to belong and be accepted by the group. In our society there is strong pressure on women to be very thin, and thus to diet, and so when women go against this pressure they feel guilt.

It makes sense but, obviously, chocolate-cookie-guilt isn’t real, moral guilt. It’s a kind of fake guilt that’s about peer pressure rather than being about actual moral principles. But in order to say that a certain kind of action does or does not fit into my moral principles, I have to say what my moral principles are. That sounds hard so I’m going to cheat and use someone else’s idea: a philosopher called John Stuart Mill came up with a moral system called Utilitarianism that has the simple principle: “Always do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” There’s a lot more to it than that (he wrote a whole book, which is really hard to read and which I gave up on after a few pages) but I’m going to stick to just that one principle, since it strikes me as being right. As I read it I find myself thinking, “yes, that’s what I think the word ‘moral’ really means”.

With this principle in hand I should be able to go forth and figure out which actions are moral and which aren’t. I started thinking that the thing a lot of people do in order to make the world a better place is to give money to charity. There are lots of different charities to choose from, but the principle ‘Do the greatest good for the greatest number’ gives a way of evaluating which would be the best charity to give money to. Say you can afford to give £20 per month, and you can either donate it to a UK cancer research charity, a charity that treats AIDS in Africa, and a charity that treats malaria in Africa. With just a little research it’s clear that the malaria charity wins hands down. That’s because the treatment for malaria is much cheaper than that for AIDS – so your £20 helps more people. In addition malaria is much more widespread – so more people need this help – and malaria can actually be cured, unlike AIDS. So malaria wins out over AIDS. Cancer research is an even softer target since you’re only paying for *research*, which doesn’t in and of itself do any good in the world (apart from providing cancer researchers with a good living). Despite billions of dollars spent on research there haven’t been any significant advances in breast cancer treatment, for example, in the past twenty years, and if a better treatment was found, it would doubtlessly be expensive, and only available to relatively wealthy cancer patients. So the £20 spent on cancer research can only do a tiny amount of good, and it quite likely does no good at all. From a utilitarian perspective giving money to cancer research is not a particularly moral action. In fact, if you suppose that if you hadn’t given the £20 to cancer research you would have given it to something more worthwhile instead, then you could argue that donating money to a cancer research charity is actually an amoral thing to do!

A funny thing: the ranking I’ve come up with is: malaria then AIDS then cancer. But if I ranked these causes by popularity and amount of money donated rather than by moral usefulness, the order would be reversed.


You’d think there would be some sort of academic study that could rank different charities and different activities according to moral usefulness per dollar spent. It wouldn’t be impossible, since outcomes like lowered death rates, longer lifespans, etc., can be measured.

Looking at the whole question of morality from a different angle, you could take a wider view and say that a really moral action would be one that removes the structural reasons for inequality, rather than simply attempting to be as efficient as possible at throwing a few crumbs to the people who are most screwed over by the current system. But, that’s another blog post.

One last thing comes to mind, before this thought-train runs out of steam: a lot of the ‘good’ things we do don’t strictly fit into the ‘do the greatest good for the greatest number’ scheme. Say your brother loses his job and you help him out with his mortgage payments for a while. That’s a good thing to do but you wouldn’t have done it for just anyone; you did it for your brother because he’s family. So this is about tribal loyalties, it’s about looking after people we have close ties with. I would say that a lot of what we think of as our ‘good’ actions are a mixture of ‘do the greatest good for the greatest number’, and tribal loyalties. This explains the ordering of popularity of charities: among people who are financially stable enough to give money to charity cancer is rather common, AIDS is less common, and malaria is virtually unknown. So people are more likely to give to a charity that tackles a disease that their own family or people they know might be affected by.

That’s enough for now, I still haven’t solved the problem of how to live a moral life yet, maybe that will happen after another blog post of two 😉


New robots trading stocks at the speed of the Internets
September 8, 2010, 12:20 am
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I just read a Financial Times article that made me laugh – about ‘High Frequency Trading’ – where computer scripts rapidly trade stocks, making money off the fact that, at a given instant, the price of something might be infinitessimally higher in one financial market than in another. The speed of the transactions is so high that traders use servers located as close to the market they are trading in as possible, because the shorter distance that their signal has to travel through the pipes of the Interwebs buys them an advantage.

These high-frequency traders aren’t even regulated – literally anyone could write a script and start doing this. Sheesh. The Financial Times article focused on the question of whether the humans making money from these new financial robots are irresponsible and dangerous leeches or not. I think any sane person who was not themself making money from high-frequency trading would agree that they are.

The part that really made me laugh was ‘quote stuffing’. Traders will send so many orders (which they immediately cancel) to the computers running a particular market that that market slows down, so that prices fall a fraction of a second behind the prices at other markets, and the high-speed financial robots quickly fire off a burst of transactions which profit from that discrepancy.

If anyone who wasn’t a financial trader did anything remotely like this, it would be called a “denial of service attack”, which is a form of computer hacking and is blatantly illegal. People get sent to jail for decades for that kind of thing. But, you know, white-collar crime. Meh.

Escaping Internet bubbles
August 16, 2010, 9:31 am
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I came across a presentation by Mark Zuckermann, while randomly net-surfing, that talked about the fact that, while the Internet was supposed to bring us all closer towards a new age of universal understanding, in fact most people live in an Internet bubble, only accessing a narrow range of content that they and their friends are into. He reckons this is partly due to language barriers, and his response was to create an organization called ‘Global Voices’ that translates news reports and blogs into different languages. The global voices website is quite interesting and well-worth being part of anyone’s internet procrastination routine.

However watching this presentation made me realize that my Internet bubble-ization is even worse than Zuckermann suggests, since, being a lefty-type living in Britain, the only newspaper I read is the Guardian. Sigh. It’s not that I particularly love the Guardian, but I dislike all the other main papers even more, and I find the Guardian at least predictable and comforting. And fundamentally, when I read newspapers online it’s because I’m either taking a 3-minute mini-break from work (I know that some people uncharitably refer to this as “procrastinating”) or because I’m feeling tired and uninspired, and want to be unchallengingly entertained. These are not situations in which I’m likely to do the work of sifting through Google for exciting new content, and instead my zombie-like type the url of the Guardian, which I know by heart, into my browser’s location bar.

So, this situation should be rectified. There are plenty of good and interesting newspapers that are in English (the only language I speak well, sadly). Here is a list.

(It’s really neat to read the Al Jazeera reports on events in Europe and North America. Same news I’m used to, but completely different bias.)

Global voices

Al Jazeera

Deutsche Welle

The algorithm that fixes everything
August 14, 2010, 5:07 pm
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The algorithm is so simple I often forget about it, which I later regret. So here I am writing it out:

1. Say what the problem is.
2. Think of a solution.
3. Do the solution.
4. See if it works.
5. Repeat.

The more a particular aspect of your life seems so basic and obvious you would never think of applying the algorithm to it, the more you probably should.

The algorithm is recursive.

Looking forward to Diaspora
August 6, 2010, 8:12 pm
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I’m really excited about the Dispora project, which is due to have a beta release ready by September.

Things that are awesome about Diaspora (I’m just going by the Diaspora blog):

  • Screen-scraping: Facebook makes it hard to move your friends list, photos, old status updates, etc. to another social networking site, which locks you into Facebook. Facebook claims that they (at least sort-of) own your data. Screen-scraping is kind of like sneakily stealing your data back out from under Facebook’s nose, which is an idea that makes me smile.
  • I wish I knew more about how Diaspora’s open standards will actually work, but I take it that once your data is in Diaspora, you can easily export it to anywhere else. I like the idea that lots of different open-standards social networking sites will pop up (or perhaps a bunch of different front-ends for Diaspora, or just one super-configurable site) to cater for everyone, whether they want their social netorking site to look like Twitter, or like LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, or like Facebook, or whatever.
  • Diaspora will be like an awesome, secure, privacy-controllable storage container for data. So even if you are still using Facebook it will make sense to put stuff on Diaspora and link to it, so that with your Diaspora privacy settings in place you will still control who sees the content.

The one really less-than-awesome thing is that (as far as I can tell, reading the blog) there aren’t any plans yet to offer free Diaspora hosting, so to use Diaspora you will have to either pay for it, or install it on your own server. To me this kind of takes away the point, since Diaspora is about having control over your data, and thus having the important freedoms of privacy and free expression – but these freedoms are only meaningful if everybody has them, so I really hope that Diaspora doesn’t turn out to be some sort of elite thing that’s only used by upper-middle-class people, and geeks, (and upper-middle-class geeks). I would love to see Diaspora being run as a free public service with users asked to make an optional donation (running a server does cost money, but it doesn’t cost very much money, and so I think this kind of model would actually be feasible.

The other issue here is that it’s very hard to get people to slowly trickle away from Facebook – people stay on Facebook even if they hate it, because all their friends are on Facebook. You really need to get a critical mass of people all leaving at the same time, and I think having free Diaspora hosting available would be a prerequisite for getting that critical mass.

What I’m really hoping is that Diaspora will help bring about a change in the way people think about online privacy. At the moment it’s simply accepted that we don’t control the content that we ourselves have created and uploaded. The media is full of stories of people who (for instance) complained about their job on Facebook, and then got fired, and it has become common sense that you shouldn’t write anything online that you don’t want all your potential future employers to see. But, goddamn it, we SHOULD be able to complain about our jobs online, that is a fundamental right! And we should be able to control exactly who can see the post. Social networking has become part of the fabric of our daily lives, and we shouldn’t have to become good little corporate robots that only say things the boss would approve of. Of course there are more important examples of why we need to have control over our data – examples that come to mind are activists living in oppressive regimes, people fleeing domestic violence, and trans people who might face violence if their identities were revealed. But the little stuff matters too – we should be able to gripe about work, write an angry political rant, or post a photo of ourselves drunk senseless and bent over the toilet dressed only in a pink tutu and a toilet plunger, if that’s what we want to do. So I’m hoping for a shift towards having the same expectations of privacy in our online lives, as we would have in other areas of life. Lots to hope for! At any rate it’ll be really interesting to see how things go once Diaspora is released: not just the software itself, but who uses it, and how it’s used.

January 30, 2010, 3:14 pm
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Gender is like Christmas. It’s a made-up thing, it only exists because people believe in it. You can imagine that if you had been born into a culture that didn’t take any notice of Christmas, you could have lived a long and happy life and never even missed it.

But here in our culture, Christmas is a big deal. Even people who personally don’t find Christmas enjoyable or meaningful, even people who dislike it intensely, still get sucked into exchanging gifts and cards, going to Christmas parties and family Christmas dinners, and wishing “Merry Christmas” to friends, co-workers, and strangers on the street. In fact, for a person who was really determined to avoid Christmas, the only alternative would be to drop out of society altogether.

Gender is just like that.

Santa Clause and Frosty the Snowman cartoon

Stick-Figure Sexism
December 29, 2009, 6:33 pm
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Quick quiz: what is the gender of this figure?

It’s a trick question of course, since this is a stick figure with no features that would indicate its gender. If your first thought was that the figure is male, you just exhibited Stick-Figure Sexism, which is a term I just made up to mean that if you are given no information about someone’s gender, you assume they are male. In the twisted world of Stick-Figure Sexism, being male is normal, while being female is a special and unusual state of affairs.

xkcd is a serial offender: the characters with no features to indicate their gender are clearly intended to be male, while the female characters are given long hair to indicate their femaleness. Being male is the default, while being female is an added-on extra.

Fun fact: xkcd’s Attribution-NonCommercial license means it is perfectly legal not only to copy and share xkcd comics (so long as no money changes hands) but also to detourne them.

Original version of this image