All posts by Donn Lee

My name is Donn, and you’ll find me working at the intersection of business and information technology, constantly looking for ways to apply IT to business and life to make things better. I’m a big fan of data analysis and its subsequent communication. It always gives me a thrill extracting meaning out of data through analysis, and figuring out the best way to present the findings for maximum impact!

Revisiting the train track dilemma or “trolley problem”

Part I: The Classic Train Track Dilemma, or: The Trolley Problem

Imagine that you’re at a train station “open house” of sorts. People are there to admire trains and see how they operate. No trains are scheduled to run that day, so people are scattered all over the place.

There are some people gathering at the station; some standing on the tracks; and some, like you, standing on the hills admiring the scenery.

Suddenly you spot a train hurtling toward and about to hit a group of about fifty people, all of whom are unaware of it. You shout out to them, but whatever sound you make is drowned out by the party atmosphere down there. You estimate that if nothing is done, at least 90% will be killed.

It just so happens that you’re standing near a switch that, if flipped, would throw the train on to another set of tracks and save these fifty people. However, you notice that on the other set of tracks there stands a group of five people. By flipping the switch, though you could save the fifty, you’d almost certainly kill these five.

What do you do?

PART II – The Train Track Dilemma, Revisited

Now, before you make a decision, let’s throw in another spanner into your already-jammed-up-moral works. Being a train enthusiast, you spot something, on the tracks leading to the fifty, that looks a lot like a device that serves to limit speeds of trains as they approach the station.

It appears to be engaged, meaning that there is a possibility that the train will slow down sufficiently enough such that those fifty could possibly get out of the way. But you don’t know that — it might just be some rubbish or party prop.

You estimate a 50% chance that it is a speed limiter that works, saving those fifty; and a 50% chance that it isn’t one, allowing the train to go on at full speed, killing those fifty.

What now? Do you flip the switch? If you do, you could well be sentencing the five to death for the sake of fifty who might not even be at risk.

People Watching

People watching used to be a favourite hobby of mine. Sitting at a café, observing without judging.

Then technology came along. And I don’t observe people so much anymore.

I mean, you can’t observe both the screen and the people around you, can you?

A real pity, really.

Technology has filled all those little spaces that “just being” used to fill. The spaces between the things that needed to be done and the places that needed to be visited.

And unfortunately the spaces where ideas used to roam free and germinate.

Trashing the first draft

He looked at my screen, saw the first draft of an e-mail I’d been penning, and shook his head.

It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t read well. The message that should have been communicated within the first line was placed below another eight lines of filler. And to think I’d been working on this for the last fifteen minutes.

“My god,” his expression told me, “that’s a bad piece of e-mail.”

I sighed.

“It’s only the first draft,” I told him. I knew it was bad, as my first drafts almost always are, almost on purpose. You don’t look at a skeleton and think now there’s a good-looking guy/girl, do you?

I know what I’m doing, was my implied message.

As it turned out, the first draft was soon discarded — it’d served its purpose — and the polished second (and final) one crafted. In less than five minutes, I might add.

The first draft is, for me, always a piece of sh*t. It’s not meant to be read. It’s meant to get the ideas floating in my head down in one place, where I can physically see and play around with them.

See my final draft and make a judgement if you want. But until then, just let me work my magic — the magic of iteration.

Stars

Sitting on the swing, relaxing after a heavy dinner,
Looking at stars I used to know more intimately,
I reminisced about times that seemed so recent but
Were (five, six, seven… no) fourteen years ago –
Half a lifetime away.

I used to watch the stars as they crawled across
The sky on restless nights before I slept, and awaken
To find their journey  only halfway through. I’d nudge them
With my finger for a bit, pushing them on, before
Getting ready for school.

I remember imagining that I was on one of those
Stars, looking into the sky and spotting Earth.
It was my way of meeting peace — from this perspective
Pain didn’t hurt. A knife through the heart would’ve made
A dent as deep as a whisper.

Going beyond economics

“So,” he asked, “what should he do?”

Straightforward as the question may seem, it was anything but. There were two tracks I could take: (1) the economic, rational track; or (2) the moral, slightly irrational track.

I can’t quite share with you what the exact nature of the discussion was, but the question would be somewhat analogous to the following:

Imagine that you and another person are participants of a social experiment, which pays both of you $5 each for participating. As part of the experiment, the experimenter passes you $10 and says that it’s to be shared with the other participant but with a catch: you decide how much you want to share. If you don’t want to share any of it, you don’t have to.

And, the other participant won’t know anything about this additional $10 that has been handed over to you. What do you do?

The economic track (that’s option 1) says that you keep the full amount. The other participant, not knowing that you have received this $10, will not be in any way worse off if he or she wasn’t offered anything.

The moral track (that’s option 2) says that you should split it 50/50: both of you did pretty much the same thing (turning up for the experiment), and there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be split equally.

Now, that was pretty much the question that was asked of me: “What should he do?”

Take the full amount, or share it?

I chose to answer option 1, and was agreed with an attaboy smile. It was, after all, in the business’ best interest.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little peeved that there wasn’t so much as a hint that option 2 was just as viable an answer. I’d answered option 1 for the sake of argument, half-thinking that it was the wrong answer, hoping to be refuted and then having a good laugh about it. That I was so heartily agreed with… that was unexpected.

It is during times likes these, because of times like these, that I seek out disciplines beyond cold economics. It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the importance of having different perspectives, perspectives gained from activities like reading poetry, studying philosophy, and running.

Running especially. Because of the pure irrationality of it. It’s a constant reminder that it’s OK to be irrational. That it’s OK to be nice.