Mon pays

Ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver

Good decisions and bad decisions


A decision is a good one or a bad one ex ante, regardless of what can be said about the results of the decision ex post. By ex ante, I mean, “as evaluated prospectively.” By ex post, I mean, “as evaluated retrospectively.”

I will give some examples to clarify what I mean.


Troi in "Disaster"

Troi in "Disaster"

You are Deanna Troi (yes, from Star Trek: The Next Generation—don’t pretend you don’t remember this episode!) and the Enterprise suffers a terrible accident. It is about to explode. For some reason, you’re actually in command of the ship, despite the fact that you don’t wear a proper uniform. Against the advice of Ensign Ro, you decide to stick around to wait and see if someone downstairs fixes the ship before it explodes, even though you have the opportunity to escape. You have no reason to believe that anyone else is alive, but if you leave, there will be no power for anyone to fix the ship and save themselves. Fortunately for everyone, Riker and Data’s head go to engineering and save the day just in time.

Superbowl bet

You are a fan of American football, and on the night of the Superbowl, you make a bet with your friend on who will win the big game. You bet $100 on the underdog, knowing full well that they stand little chance of winning. Fortunately for you, the quarterback for the favoured team falls ill and throws up over the rest of the team. As a result, the entire team spends the next several hours projectile vomiting, and they have to forfeit the game. Your friend admits defeat and pays up the $100.

Drunk driver

You are drinking heavily, and you get into your car and drive yourself home, despite your friends’ protests and attempts to stop you. Fortunately for everyone, the streets are empty of both people and other cars, and you manage to bring yourself and your car home completely safe.

In all of these cases, ex post, you made the right decision—by that, I mean, there was an optimal result, if you consider the decision from the perspective of hindsight. Ex ante, however, in all of these cases, you made the wrong decision.

I put these examples in the order that I did because I think that readers will be most sympathetic to the decision in the first example, and least sympathetic to the decision in the last example.

In Disaster, an unreflecting analysis would say that of course Troi made the right decision—it’s the Enterprise, for Pete’s sake! They have to be all right. In Superbowl bet, you might even imagine your friend begrudgingly admitting after the fact that you made the right call (although he might say that it was “just luck,” and for some of us, our intuitions might differ). In Drunk driver, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say that you made the right decision.

Decision trees

Decision trees

All of these cases have the same form, which I have diagrammed to the left. You can make one of two decisions—choice A or choice B. If you make choice A, you are likely to experience a very bad result, but there is a small chance that you will experience a good result. If you make choice B, you are certain to experience a mediocre result (one that has more utility than the very bad result, but less utility than the good result).

If all of these scenarios have the same form, we should give the same answer to the question as to what should be done in each situation, on pain of acting irrationally.

So even though you won $100 in Superbowl bet, you made the wrong decision. You should have declined to bet. Similarly, even though Troi saved the Enterprise in Disaster, she should have condemned Riker and Data’s head to death.

Why is this important?

Humans are really bad at judging probabilities and systematically make certain sorts of errors. In particular, humans are easily swayed by trying to place experiences into the context of a narrative.

For example, after being told a story about a young woman who participates in feminism rallies and studies math in college, there is a non-zero percentage of people who will say that it is more likely that she will end up as a feminist banker than as a banker, which is logically impossible. (This is the “conjunction fallacy”—all feminist bankers are bankers, after all.)

You may have won bets that were long shots in the past, out of sheer luck. In fact, if you are a betting man, likely those are the bets you remember, to the exclusion of the ones with the same odds that you lost. The point is that you shouldn’t model your future decisions after such mistakes.

Also, if someone is trying to sway your decisions through an anecdote regarding his or her own success in an endeavour that is unlikely to succeed, it is also irrational to take that as evidence on which to base your decision-making process. If the story includes the line, “and against all odds, everything turned out all right,” or something like it, you should interpret that as meaning, “I made the wrong decision, but I was lucky this time,” and treat it as a cautionary tale.

The moral of the story is that you should model your thinking after Ensign Ro, and not after Troi.

A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline


I bet you thought I was done posting about my thesis. Last Friday (6 days ago), I received this email after I had the pleasure of submitting my thesis electronically.

[Your supervisor] approved your e-thesis on September 23, 2011 at 11:51.

If your thesis has been accepted by all your supervisor(s), it has been sent to GPSO for processing.

If your thesis has been rejected, please make the changes requested by your supervisor(s) to your original document*, and create a new pdf, delete the file on the server, and upload the new file.

You can track the progress of your thesis on Minerva.

Hooray! It was good news to receive this email, and I tweeted about it immediately, of course.

Then, this morning, I received the following email.

Dear Benjamin, … We [at the philosophy department] have been told that you haven’t submitted your thesis electronically, and this is one of the graduation conditions. Can you do this immediately? The conditions have to be met by Tuesday, 4 October. Best wishes.

October 4th is on Tuesday (5 days from now). I’m pretty sure that my thesis has been submitted electronically. Here is my evidence:

  • Minerva lists my thesis as being uploaded and approved
  • I received the aforementioned email from the e-thesis computer

So I really don’t know what this fuss from the philosophy department is all about, but now I’m nervous that something’s messed up.

Moral dilemmas generated by a nurse’s professional obligations


In loose and general terms, a moral dilemma is what happens when someone is caught between two (or more) conflicting legitimate moral claims.

A resolvable moral dilemma, on the one hand, is one in which one moral claim on the agent in question is more important than the other. In such a case, the agent is in the position of having to choose between a greater and a lesser evil.

An irresolvable a moral dilemma, on the other hand, occurs when someone has to make a decision between two (or more) options, where morality gives absolutely no guidance regarding which decision to make.

I find moral dilemmas utterly fascinating, and one came up in class last week. We were talking about professionalism in nursing, and this case was never resolved in class (to my satisfaction, at least).

As a nurse, there are certain obligations that arise just by virtue of the fact that a nurse is a professional. For example, a nurse is bound by confidentiality, just because she is a nurse. (And not necessarily because she offers a promise of confidentiality to any particular client.) It would be severely unprofessional for a nurse to disclose the physical condition of one of her clients to someone who is not directly involved in the client’s care.

Conversely, a nurse sometimes has a duty to share certain pieces of information regardless of the wishes of the client for the information to be kept confidential, and this duty arises just because she is a nurse.

It’s really easy to see how these two professional obligations in particular could result in incompatible but legitimate moral claims on a nurse’s conduct. There are some examples where it’s clear what a nurse should do, but then there are a lot of cases where it’s not so clear. I’ll lay out a number of such examples to illustrate.

The child molester

In this case, a client is sexually molesting his nine-year-old niece, and he tells the nurse, but asks her to keep it a secret. Here, it is clear that regardless of the wishes of the client to keep his conduct secret, the nurse has a professional obligation to tell certain people (the niece’s parents, the police) about the molestation because of the degree of harm to the niece. I think it is non-controversial that we could characterise this as a classic resolvable dilemma—the nurse should break confidentiality, which is a legitimate moral constraint on her actions, but because the nurse also acts to prevent harm to the patient, she chooses the lesser evil.

This case is clear. The wrong of breaking confidentiality is clearly outweighed by preventing the wrong of further sexual exploitation. But what about cases that are otherwise parallel, but in which there is less harm to the child? Here’s a few other cases with decreasing harm to the niece.

The enabler

In this case, a client is saving his pain medication and giving it to his nine-year-old niece because she likes the way it makes her feel. He tells the nurse, in full expectation of confidentiality.


Here, the client reveals that he is buying cigarettes and giving them to his nine-year-old niece. He has not told the niece’s parents, and indicates that he wants the nurse to keep this quiet.


A client says that he is buying beer for his niece. The parents don’t know, and he indicates that he expects the nurse to respect confidentiality in this matter.

Lots of candy

This is the same situation as the previous, but instead of alcohol, the client is giving his niece an unhealthy amount of candy.

Bad TV shows

This is the same situation as the previous, but instead of candy, the worst thing that the client does that has an impact on his niece’s health is that sometimes he lets his niece watch cartoons on the television. He doesn’t want the nurse to tell his sister (the niece’s mother) because he is a somewhat insecure man and he is afraid that if his sister found out that he and his niece were bonding over Looney Tunes, he would be teased.

In the last case, Bad TV shows, I think most people would say that the nurse should respect the client’s wish to keep the matter secret, since the harm to the child is minimal. That is, if a nurse spoke to the niece’s parents, it might even be seen as an unprofessional breach of trust.

So at either extreme, it is very clear what the nurse should do. In The child molester, we think the nurse ought to say something and break confidence. In Bad TV shows, we think the nurse really doesn’t have good enough reason to break confidentiality. It’s the cases in between where there is some uncertainty. Where do we draw the line?

Probably The enabler is a case where confidence should be broken. To be honest, I’m not sure about Alcohol.

Here’s another consideration: for some moral dilemmas moral philosophers will say that they are only resolvable “with remainder.” That is, even if the moral agent correctly identifies and takes the horn of the dilemma that is the lesser evil, the option that is not taken still retains some of its moral force, and requires something on the part of the moral agent to resolve it, like remorse, regret or apology.

In a case like The child molester, if the nurse breaks confidentiality to tell the parents and the police about the exploitation, most people won’t think that anything (like an apology) is owed to the molester. In the less extreme cases, this becomes less clear, I think, and especially if we don’t make the assumption that the client in question is doing something that she knows to be wrong.

I don’t have answers to the questions here. I’m not even sure if this “balancing” of interests is the best way to conceive of the problem.

The “correct” answer that we were given in class is that before the client offers us a secret, we should disclose to the client that, depending on what the secret is, we might have to tell someone. The problem with that answer is that a nurse does not just come by incompatible moral obligations by virtue of poorly thought-through promises she makes. Confidentiality and concern for the well-being of others are obligations that bear on nurses regardless of whether they say that they will keep a secret or not, and so a more fine-grained and nuanced approach to this problem is needed.

Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree


In order to graduate, I must submit my thesis.

To submit my thesis, I have to hand in my Nomination of Examiners Form, available from Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as a fillable PDF. In the top-left corner, it reads, “this form must be typed.”

If you look at the fillable PDF, you’ll notice that I can’t fill in the form completely until I know who my internal reader is.

I spoke to the Philosophy Department, and they told me that they would inquire as to which professors would be able to serve as my internal reader after I hand in the Thesis Submission form and the Nomination of Examiners Form. I’m not allowed to contact professors myself to ask them to be my internal readers.

This is my final test.

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal


Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

This Wednesday night, I went to the Quirks and Quarks roadshow at Concordia University here in Montréal. It was their question-and-answer programme, so they had scientists answer listeners’ questions. Questions prepared in advance, that is. One wasn’t allowed to stand up an ask a random question. It was a very pleasant evening. I actually got to see what Bob McDonald looks like (that was weird—he’s supposed to be a bodiless radio personality), the questions were interesting and the scientists were entertaining.

I brought my towel, because it was May 25. You would have thought that an event like that (a radio recording of something aimed at über-geeks) would have brought out more people with towels, but nope. You’d be wrong.

I left to get some food because I was hungry after the recording, but I was strongly tempted to stay and heckle Bob McDonald for one of the questions.

One of the listeners asked how it is that we know that what he sees as red is the same thing as what anyone else sees as red. This is a classic problem in philosophy. It is a problem of philosophy of mind, and one that touches on issues of qualia, naturalism, the hard problem of experience, and our phenomenal experience of the world as distinct from our brains’ and our eyes’ mechanism for discerning colour.

I was excited when I heard the question.

Then they had an ophthalmologist answer the question. She totally missed the point! She did not answer the question. She talked about rods and cones. She talked about optic nerves. Those things are interesting in their own right, but you can’t use them to prove anything about whether my phenomenal experience of the colour red is the same as yours.

Bob McDonald: Don’t bring in a scientist to do a philosopher’s job! I think I’ll email Paul Kennedy (host of CBC’s Ideas) and tell him that you’re encroaching on his territory!

I’m glad I went though. They also had free cookies. Well, they were unguarded cookies. I assumed they were free.

If you want to hear this broadcast, it will be on CBC Radio 1 at 12h on Saturday afternoon.

Philosophy of science—falsification


Imagine you have some hypothesis. We’ll call it H.

Now imagine you have come up with some experiment to prove that H is false. So if you get a positive result for the experiment, (P) then we know that H is false. In logical notation, we would write this as the following:


It may help to have an example. Imagine that your hypothesis is that air has a refractive index of 1. So what you do is you build a machine that shoots a laser through a sample of air and then measures the laser beam as it comes out the other side to see if it was refracted at all. If there is refraction, we would say that you got a positive result, P, and so your hypothesis H is false.

Now imagine you do the experiment. You gather air samples from all over the world, and for all but one of them, you get a negative result. In one case, you get a major and significant departure from an index of refraction of 1.

Here’s the problem: Can you actually conclude that your hypothesis is incorrect?

It might be the case that by the time you got to the last measurement, the equipment was having problems, or maybe the sample case wasn’t clean, or you gathered a sample that had a lot of pollution.

There are a whole bunch of secondary assumptions that you make when you do an experiment. You assume that the equipment is clean and functioning properly; you assume that the sample is pure; etc. If any of these is not true, it might still be the case that the hypothesis is true, even though you got a result of P.

So if {T1, T2, T3, …} are the set of all the background assumptions that go into the experiment described above, the logical notation for the refutation of H would be something more like the following:


It becomes really hard to devise a way to logically separate the H from all the T’s when you think about it.

This is a problem not only for philosophers of science, but also for other sorts of intellectual pursuits. Consider doomsday prophets like Harold Camping.

Imagine that the hypothesis you’re trying to test is that numerology is a good way to discover knowledge about the future. An experiment to test this would be to find a prediction made through numerology, and if the prediction isn’t accurate, then you can be satisfied that numerology is false. Easy right?

The problem here is the same as in philosophy of science. You’d think that Camping himself would have learned by now that numerology isn’t going to produce any true knowledge of the future. When there was not a literal physical earthquake, Camping changed his story, but only very slightly. He claimed that the hypothesis was true (beginning of the end of the world on May 21) but that one of the supporting secondary assumptions was false (it was a spiritual judgement, not a physical one).

Camping has been interviewed, and he almost apologises on television. Now he says that the apocalypse is happening for sure on October 21.

There should be a fine for doing things like this, and I don’t think such a measure would do violence to a person’s right to free speech, or to the liberty of people to spend their finances in the way they want: In the same way that there are legal repercussions for yelling “fire” in a crowded building if there is no fire, maybe there should be legal repercussions for yelling “apocalypse” on a crowded planet if there is no rapture.

You can yell “fire” if you want and even pull the alarm, but if there is no fire, you should be ready to pay a hefty fine, and you should be ashamed of yourself. The firefighters could have been saving other people while they came to save you. People have been crushed in the panic caused by false fire alarms. Similarly, the money spent by this doomsday cult could have been used to actually save people’s lives, if given to charity or science, and many people’s lives were destroyed by Camping’s false prediction.

On the upside, no one euthanised their children or killed themselves in this doomsday craze (that I know of), but I bet that a bunch of dogs and cats were put down. (I realise this will hold little moral weight among Christians, who do not see animals as moral patients.) Further, millions of dollars were wasted, and perhaps most sadly, there were millions of people who honestly thought they were going to heaven, who even made plans for it, and who were disappointed. Harold Camping’s actions were, and continue to be irresponsible to the point of cruelty.

Edit (11.05.27):

Contemporary Moral Issues at McGill


I’m one of the TA’s for the Contemporary Moral Issues course at McGill this semester, and I really appreciate Dr. Reisner, the professor for the course. He gives me a lot of freedom in which to conduct my conferences, provides good structure, and never micro-manages. Further, he often anticipates things that will go wrong.

For example, at the beginning of this semester, he had me take the entire first conference of the year to give an open-book “course syllabus quiz.” Basically, I stood up at the front of the conference and explained to everyone all the potentially troublesome sorts of course details regarding cheating and unacceptable conduct so that later on in the course, they couldn’t say things like, “But I didn’t know it was mandatory to attend every conference!”

Not only that, but when problems happen, like catching students cheating or when they want an excuse from doing required work, I can just send them to Dr. Reisner, and he deals with them.

While I can’t tell you any of the details about what happened this week, it has been very eventful, and I’m very thankful for the forethought of Dr. Reisner.

LaTeX, BibTeX and ibidem


Apparently, having been trained in the philosophical tradition, I’m unused to citing sources. My supervisor says that a typical attitude for a philosopher to take toward sources is that if your bibliography has 6 citations, that’s 5 too many. So, on the advice of my supervisor, I have been trying to include more references to published sources in my thesis. As he puts it, “think less; read more.”

Having done that for the last chapter or so (I’m going back later to add lots and lots of citations to the other chapters), I realised that the citations were taking up way too much space on the paper. So, I put them all in footnotes. They still took up a lot of space, and they were hard to read down there.

So, I decided that I should change my citation style, so that when I have multiple citations from the same source, the second, third, etc. citations after the first one would just be “ibid.” (From Latin ibidem, meaning “the same place.”) This would have been a time-consuming and mind-numbing task, going through my entire thesis and picking out all the citations where there’s two or more in a row and replacing all but the first one with “ibid.

Fortunately, I use LaTeX and BibTeX (and OS X front-ends called TeXShop and BibDesk) for writing my thesis and citation management.

I found a great package, called inlinebib that does just that. It actually took a bit of digging to find a bibliography style package for LaTeX that worked the way I wanted it to, with ibidem and all. But once I found it, all I had to do was put inlinebib.bst and inlinebib.sty in my project folder, then write \usepackage{inlinebib} in my document preamble, and it worked just fine!

Free time in grad school


Let us define “free time (0)” to mean something like “time where a person has no particular appointments or where she has no duties that need to fulfilled within that time.” So, for example, an hour break between classes would be an example of free time (0).

There is another sense of free time that is not captured by free time (0). Let us define “free time (1)” to mean something like “time where a person doesn’t have anything that she even could be doing during that time.” For a person with free time (1), that person would be able to say, “I don’t have any assignments hanging over my head right now.” Of course, for such a concept to be useful, it may be necessary to specify a domain over which it applies—so one might meaningfully say, “I have free time (1) with respect to my job, but not with respect to my chores at home.” It would be rare indeed to have free time (1) without qualification.

So for example, a student between semesters, or at the beginning of the summer break has free time (1) as far as school is concerned. And if we consider the previous example, it’s easy to see how a person might have free time (0) in an hour break between classes, but how that person will not truly have free time (1) until after she writes her final exam and hands in all her assignments, because until then, there is always more preparation and work that she could do.

When I worked at my 9-5 job this summer, I was lucky because I had a lot of free time (1) with respect to my job, even though I didn’t really have as much free time (0) as I had when I was in school. That is to say, I didn’t have much free time (0) because my job dictated that I spend the hours between 9h in the morning to 17h in the afternoon at my desk, doing particular things. I had little free time (0) in that sense. Contrarily, I had plenty of free time (1), compared to being at school. At school, really, the only time you get free time (1) is when you are between semesters (and sometimes not even then). At work, I had free time (1) from my job every night. When I left my work, the responsibilities of the office stayed at the office. I never had homework. I never had exams. There was a clear line separating my work-life from the rest of my life. In fact, as far as work was concerned, the set of hours that made up my free time (0) was exactly co-extensive with the set of hours that made up my free time (1).

Now that I’m working on my thesis full-time, I have more free time (0) than I have ever had in my life, especially now that my office hours and conferences are over for the semester. The trade-off is that I don’t ever have any free time (1). There is always something else I could be reading, or something I should be writing or a revision to my thesis that I should be working on. There is no time that I couldn’t point to on my day-timer of which I couldn’t say, “maybe I should use this time for my thesis.”

Here’s where it gets interesting: I believe both that I’ve never truly had any free time (1) while in school, and that somehow this experience of writing my thesis means that I have even less free time (1) than I had before. This is obviously a contradiction (to think that I never had something before and that now I somehow have less), so it means that my conception of free time (1) is too simple.

So let’s now re-define free time (x) as being time with no particular appointments or tasks to do, when there is up to (1-x) times a full workload’s responsibility “hanging over your head.” And x can be any real number between 0 and 1, inclusive.

Awesome. The previous definitions still hold, pretty much, and it gives us the language for describing the difference between my experience in undergrad and my experience with my thesis.

My experience in undergrad was that while I never actually did experience free time (1), I often experienced free time (1/2) or free time (3/4). I would come to a point where I only had a very few things that I could reasonably do (after all, there’s a finite number of review questions for your chemistry test) and so I wouldn’t feel the weight of the full workload’s responsibility. At the beginning of each semester in my undergrad, I would have free time (x) with a higher value for x than at the end of the semester.

With my thesis, on the other hand, even though the whole thing is divided into chapters, it’s more like one long paper than a series of short and connected ones. For example, I have to make sure that any changes I make to one chapter will agree with the other chapters. My supervisor uses the analogy of building a railroad. I have to make sure that the tracks at one end (chapter one) line up with the tracks at the other end (the last chapter). My thesis is a whole, in some ways, and so I think that’s why my experience with regard to free time is different than it was during my undergrad. I sometimes do experience a little bit of free time (1/4), though, but that’s after I submit a draft of a chapter or something.

In conclusion, right now I have lots of free time (0), no free time (1), and only little bits of free time (1/4), every once in a while.

And for the record, I did write this while procrastinating on writing my thesis.

A taxonomy of sarcasm


An old friend of mine once explained this to me, and now I will pass this precious wisdom to the rest of the world. Here is how to identify what degree of sarcasm you are using or experiencing:

  1. First degree sarcasm: Saying what you don’t mean, and saying it insincerely.
    E.g. “Oh! Now that was intelligent!” [said sardonically after something stupid is done]
  2. Second degree sarcasm: Saying what you don’t mean, but saying it sincerely.
    E.g. “Oh, now that was intelligent.”  [said in a complimentary way after something stupid is done]
  3. Third degree sarcasm: Saying what you mean, but saying it insincerely.
    E.g. “Yeah, you’re a good friend.” [said in a mocking tone of voice to a true friend]
  4. Fourth degree sarcasm: Saying what you mean, and saying it sincerely.*
    E.g. “Yeah, you’re a good friend.” [said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice to a true friend]

The first degree of sarcasm is the least subtle. It is the easiest to use in conversation and the hardest to misunderstand. It is also not very funny.

Metasarcasm can occur when someone realises that first degree sarcasm is undesirable, but makes a statement that is, on the surface, first degree sarcastic—saying what one doesn’t mean, and saying it like one doesn’t mean it. This is done in full knowledge of the comedic limitations of this degree of sarcasm, and as a mockery of first degree of sarcasm itself.

The second degree of sarcasm is slightly more subtle, and depending on timing and other contextual factors, it can be very witty or very harsh. The power in this degree of sarcasm depends on the contrast between the sincerity of the statement, while actually conveying the opposite meaning.

Third degree sarcasm can be used when first or second degree sarcasm are too coarse or obvious. Imagine that your friend is obviously working very quickly at some task. You could use first degree sarcasm to say, “Wow, you’re working really slow.” That would not be very funny at all, unless it is an example of metasarcasm, so instead you might try saying in a matter-of-fact tone, “Could you pick up the pace a bit?” which would be better—a good example of second degree sarcasm—but that might seem obvious. Another option is the use of third degree sarcasm. You might say while rolling your eyes, “Yeah, that’s impressive.” You actually are impressed by your friend’s industriousness, but you say so in a way that seems to convey the opposite meaning.

The third degree of sarcasm is also sometimes used to express vulnerable truths in a way that protects the speaker. The speaker is protected by the ambiguity of the statement. Coated with a thin layer of sarcasm, the speaker can, in subsequent sentences, make the third degree sarcastic statement appear to be either an attempt at humour or alternately, a heartfelt expression of feeling, depending on how the speaker feels it has been taken.

The fourth degree of sarcasm is the most subtle, and many deny that it is sarcasm at all. Indeed, by its definition, “a sincere expression of what one really means,” it is not hard to see why it is often missed. I leave, as an exercise for the reader, the task of coming up with some examples.

[ * I have put an asterisk after this definition because this definition gives the necessary, but not the sufficient conditions for a statement to be fourth degree sarcastic. That is, not all members of the set of statements that are sincere expressions of ideas that one means to convey are also members of the set of fourth degree sarcastic statements.]

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