Tuesday, November 23, 2010

If not now, when?

I’m fairly persuaded by the arguments that it would be possible to save the lives of quite a lot of people by giving even fairly modest amounts of money to charities like Oxfam and Unicef. I don’t think it’s wrong for me not to give my money away, but I want to save lives as much as the next guy and if I find myself with a lot more money than I have now I’m certainly planning to give a fair bit away and save a fair few lives. I hardly give anything away now, because I’m a student and don’t have much to give.

I am aware though that if I prioritised things differently I could give some away. I spend money on things like beer, train tickets for journeys that aren’t essential, the occasional curry, sometimes even a flight. Instead of buying some of these things I could give some money to charity and save some lives, but I don’t. I prioritise beer and things instead.

What puzzles me is why I do this. I’m sure I’m not unusual in spending my money the way I do, but that shouldn’t make much difference. I don’t feel I have to spend my money the way other people do, for example I hardly ever buy any clothes. (It’s getting to the point where soon I’ll have to, but I’ll still be well below average.) One rationalisation I’ve considered is that the most important thing by far from a lifesaving point of view is that I’m able to get a good job and get my hands on some serious cash which I can spend on some serious lifesaving, and spending my money along the lines of least resistance now makes that more likely. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I suspect there’s some truth in it but not much. Even if it is true it’s obviously a fairly callous attitude to adopt towards the people who are dying now, but I’m quite happy to be a bit callous if it means more lives get saved in the long run.

I suppose what worries me more is the possibility that I spend my money on myself instead of on saving lives because of an underlying selfishness which I’m never going to grow out of, and that even when I’m able to save many times more lives than I could at the moment I’ll prioritise things like extravagant holidays, eating out frequently, drinking expensive whisky and running a car. It’s not even beyond the realms of possibility that I might have children whose mother persuaded me to have them privately educated. After all that there might not be enough left to give away more than is normal for middle-class people, and as I’ve said, that conflicts with my plan.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moral victories

Sometimes people don’t win but claim a moral victory. The grounds for such claims fall into at least three categories. One is where the result would have been different if the luck had been more evenly distributed. The idea there is that you played better than your opponent but they still won because you picked up nothing but Is and Us while they were laying down ‘jaguars’ and picking up ‘oxidize’. The second kind of moral victory is when the result was affected by bad officiating. If the winning goal was a penalty which shouldn’t have been awarded then it is commonplace for the losing side to claim a moral draw. The third kind of claim is when the opponents cheated. It’s hard to say where to draw the boundaries between cheating, gamesmanship and using one’s nous, but it’s uncontroversial that some kinds of cheating can take the morality out of a victory.

Football managers interviewed after a bad result often make excuses which seem tantamount to claiming a moral victory, and while there’s a degree of reasonableness to at least some of these claims, they do it far too often for my taste and presumably also too often for most people’s. There’s a particular type of claim managers make which really bugs me though, and thinking about it reveals two distinct ways of keeping the moral scorecard. This is when a team loses say 4-1, and the other team scored a wrongly awarded penalty when the score was 1-1. The losing manager will say that they were really in it until the penalty was awarded, and after that the game was as good as over and things just unravelled.

There are two ways of looking at this. One way to keep the moral scorecard is to keep the regular scorecard, crossing off tainted goals and adding goals where penalties should have been awarded. The other is to calculate what the score would have been if nothing dubious had happened. On the first measure the moral score was 3-1, so the team which should have won did win. The plaintiff here must be invoking the second moral scorecard, saying that the game changed after the penalty, presumably because they had to play more aggressively and kept getting caught on the break. I’m not denying that a case can be made here that if the penalty hadn’t been awarded the game would have been a draw. The reason I think this sort of moral scorekeeping should be resisted is that it gives no credit for how the teams played after the dubious incident. It can act as evidence for how they would have played, but lots of things can act as evidence. Actual play should have a distinctive role which on this kind of moral scorekeeping it doesn’t have.

This sort of thing leads to crazy results. It doesn’t just mean that it doesn’t morally matter how you play after you change your tactics in response to a bad decision; it also means that morally nobody needs to defend against a corner or free kick which was incorrectly awarded. You do hear this though: sometimes people will claim that a goal doesn’t morally count because there was an incorrectly awarded throw-in during the buildup. Enough. Defending is just as important whether the other team should have possession or not.

One thing we could do in response to this is calculate the moral scorecard in the first way. I don’t think that’s a good idea, because the second way is plainly more accurate. A goal can change the whole complexion of a game, and a wrongly awarded penalty can sometimes change the result by more than one goal. I think the only thing for it is to forget about the moral scorecard altogether and only pay attention to what the score actually is. This isn’t the same as saying that the real score is the moral score; it’s to say that the moral score is unknowable even if it’s coherent, so we should just ignore it. It’s not easy to view bad officiating the same way you view the weather, but that’s the mature thing to do. You can campaign for better referees, but you can install undersoil heating or put a roof on your stadium. I don’t know how normal people feel about this, but Strawson said the difference was resentment. You might not like the weather, but you don’t resent it. I find it can be quite liberating to stop resenting your incompetent referees and cheating opponents as well.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How do you feel about boxing?

Last night I watched the eagerly awaited mismatch between David Haye and Audley Harrison. I wanted the better boxer to win in style, and he did. I like watching boxing but I always feel slightly strange when I do, because I’m torn between three ways of feeling about it.

It’s not hard to make the case that boxing’s barbaric. We pay people to punch each other beyond the point at which it starts being quite bad for their health, purely for the entertainment of millions. It’s not unheard of for someone to die. I can’t feel completely comfortable being one of those millions, because I suppose I’d like society to have been able to progress beyond that sort of thing by now. I’m not saying boxing is barbaric, but if you didn’t know better it’d certainly sound that way.

On the other side there are all the reasons why boxing is called the noble art. There are the obvious things like it being one of the few routes poor teenage boys used to have out of poverty, but the more I think about boxing the nobler it seems. It’s got a rich history, some great movies and Muhammad Ali. It also fairly obviously taps into something visceral about human nature which it might be a great shame to give up. We haven’t given up eating for pleasure, and maybe we’d miss getting people to fight each other too.

The third thing, which can’t really be reconciled with either of the other two, is that boxing is hilarious. It’s hilarious in almost exactly the way that professional wrestling is hilarious. We see all the hype, trash-talking, cartoonish bodies and silly sums of money flying around, and the focus of it all is seven minutes of squaring up followed by one minute of a good boxer taking a mediocre one to pieces. So when I’m watching boxing I don’t know whether to be appalled, edified or amused, and you can’t easily be more than one of those things at once.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hume vs. Gunk

Here’s an argument against the possibility of gunky time. It’s not mine; it’s Hume’s. You can find it in part 2, section 2 of book 1 of his Treatise of Human Nature. If time is gunky then each moment is gunky and so has parts. These parts would be co-existent times, and that’s absurd.

I don’t think the argument as I’ve phrased it quite works, because you can respond that if time’s gunky then there aren’t any moments, just eras. But modify it a bit: if time’s gunky then the present’s gunky, so the present has parts. Assuming that parts of times are times, that means the present isn’t all present or more than one time is present, and both of those really are absurd.

Hume adds to his argument that time must be gunky if space is, and concludes that space can’t be gunky either. I’m not sure whether that quite follows or not, but you’d expect the gunkiness of space, time and matter to stand or fall together.

So what’s wrong with the argument? Most of us think gunk’s possible, although I’ve recently written a paper arguing that the conceivability arguments for this aren’t as good as people tend to think. Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with the argument and gunk’s not possible. But if Hume was on to this 270 years ago, why isn’t it generally known?

Online Scrabble

One of the things I do in my spare time is play Scrabble with strangers on the internet. I use a Facebook app for it, which isn’t the best program in the world but it does the job and you can have a good game. One unfortunate feature of this setup is that the internet abounds with anagram generators which tempt the players to cheat. Sometimes you wonder whether people are succumbing to this temptation. There are some very good Scrabble players out there and when you’re playing one of them over the board it can feel like they must have an iPad under the table with an anagramming app on it. They don’t, of course. I’m reminded of the brouhaha that erupted when Veselin Topalov was playing Vladimir Kramnik for the world chess championship and Kramnik kept going to the toilet so Topalov accused him of having a chess computer in there. Grandmasters everywhere were defending Kramnik by saying how a tight endgame can play havoc with your bladder. Kramnik won, and almost certainly wasn’t using a computer.

Anyway, Facebook Scrabble has a chatbox in the corner, as these things usually do, so you can talk to your opponent. Normally it’s used for saying ‘hi, gl’, ‘nice 1’, ‘gg’, ‘my letterz are no gud’ and so on, but occasionally people use it to accuse their opponent of cheating. I’ve been accused three times, and I never know how to react. You don’t want to stop playing because then they’ll think they were right, and you don’t want to keep playing with someone who thinks you’re cheating. Fortunately they usually make the accusation towards the end of the game, or make it, wait for your reaction, say they don’t play with cheats and then resign. It’s unpleasant.

What I find most peculiar is that people do it at all. It’d be a strange person indeed who got any satisfaction out of watching strangers play Scrabble against an anagramming program they didn’t design. Perhaps people occasionally cheat for a move or two when they’re losing just to even up the scores, but that’d be hard to detect and wouldn’t completely ruin the game. I expect the vast majority of accusations are from people who aren’t very good and aren’t bright enough to realise some people are much better than they are, and all it does is spoil the game and upset their opponent. Sometimes I suspect my opponent is cheating a bit but I never make any accusations because there’s no point. It’ll probably be unfounded, if it’s not it still won’t achieve anything and either way it’ll ruin the game. I guess the lesson to be learnt is this: Veselin Topalov shouldn't play online Scrabble.