Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chope!, or The Problem of Seat Reservation

If I were to have lunch at noon at the campus canteen, the following would invariably occur: I would walk down the stairs leading to the canteen and observe that many tables are unoccupied, and think to myself, "Oh, lucky!". A few moments later, on a closer approach, I would realize that the seats at the "unoccupied" tables are occupied with bags or items - Yes, these tables have been 'Choped', or reserved by the owners of the items. It is a culture prevalent in Singapore.

It is not that I have a problem with items being used to reserve tables. My objection would be equally great if someone (of presumably a party greater than 2 members in size) was left behind to take watch over the tables. The issue is seat reservation. It does not require extensive thought to realize that seat reservation reduces the useful seating capacity of the canteen (or hawker center); simply consider the amount of time that a table is not put to useful work (ie, being used by people in the act of eating). A table is not being actively used when the reserver is out ordering her food. If we were to parametrize the amount of time spent eating as E and the amount of time when the table is reserved as R, then the useful capacity of the canteen has been reduced to a fraction E/(E+R).

The problem can also be considered from the perspective of game theory. The choices available are to not reserve, hence exposing yourself to the risk of having no table to eat at but marginally improving everyone's chance of obtaining a seat, or to reserve, ensuring that you have a seat when you have purchased your food but decreasing everyone's chances of finding a table. In such a situation, given that largely non-observable and minor benefits of not reserving a seat as compared to the considerable benefit of reserving a seat, the outcome is understandable.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Words of Justice Ripper

Perhaps you believe that human life is sacred. I AGREE! But those that I kill are not human, but MONSTERS! Perhaps you believe that behind their inhuman acts lies some kind of tragic tale or unfortunate cause, that they are not villains, but victims of fate. Perhaps you believe that once you understand them, that once you address the root of their base motivations, that they will be restituted, repaired. But have you seen the look in their eyes when they commit their crimes? It is a look without any remorse, without any empathy, without any ounce of care or concern for the plight or well-being of anything other than their pathetic selves! I have seen it. And I was led to conclude that whatever seed of humanity that they once possessed is now so utterly absent and decayed that they are little more than beasts gifted with the element of intelligence. And we must accord to beasts the law applicable to beasts; perhaps we can tolerate them in their state of nature, but if they do but hurt humans, then they must be exterminated.

-Justice Ripper


He turned the corner, and I followed. It was a dead end. The most blessed thing was, it was a dead end! Many months of poring over minuscule details, many months of surveillance, many months of tracking and shadowing, and today, I have finally cornered the criminal known to the public as "Justice Ripper". Perhaps nobody had expected me to make as much progress as I did, particularly not with the meager resources the Department allocated to my investigation; even within the Department, there was some ambivalence to the capture of "Justice Ripper". Perhaps he did kill only the most hardened and remorseless of criminals; perhaps he did kill only those who abused their powers and yet remained above the law though corruption and bribery; but in my superiors' books, and in the books written to govern us all, vigilantism is a crime. Thus he must be stopped.

I drew my service revolver, and issued a single command, "Stop." Justice Ripper turned around slowly, but his arms were not raised. "Drop any weapons and put up your hands!", I barked. He did not comply, but instead edged forwards.

"Stop moving ! Stop moving or I"ll shoot, you bastard !"

"Hahaha !!! What nonsense! I did nothing wrong. I did not kill anyone. Those that I killed were not human, but beasts in human form, lacking human kindness. MONSTERS! Monsters that deserved to die!"

And then he charged forward. He did not get much farther, for I shot him almost instantly, a product of much police training. But it was still a traumatic event for me, and I just sat there for a while, feeling somewhat confused and somewhat lost.

The rank and file corporals and sergeants soon came and cordoned off the scene. The entire affair was quickly over, much faster than I could fully recover and regain my wits. Perhaps pitying my pathetic state, a sergeant, seemingly experienced, came over and gave a single line of encouragement.

"Don't worry, you did nothing wrong. You only got rid of another murdering monster."

But it did not make me feel any better.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Random Musings on Good and Evil

It randomly occurred to me that between the two maxims "Do good" and "Do no evil", the latter might be more advisable. "Do good" does not make any statement on the amount of evil committed, and thus is open to a scenario where some good is done but outweighed (if good and evil could somehow be weighed on a single ordinal axis) by evil acts; thus, the final expectation of "Do good" in terms of moral value could be anywhere between ULTIMATE GOOD and ULTIMATE EVIL. Whereas for "Do no evil", the final expectation is surely non-evil; in the worst possible scenario, wherein the person does no evil but also no good, the final moral value is NEUTRAL, but clearly it is more likely for the "Do no evil" person to do some good (perhaps inadvertently) and thus have GOOD moral value. This is best summed up in the following instructive diagram.

As can be seen, the blue line represents the range of possible moral values that "Do No Evil" can take, and the green line represents that for "Do Good". While both strategies have the same ULTIMATE capacity for good, only "Do Good" can prove evil in the end!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sweets Sharing Puzzle

Two kids (who are not goats), Alice and Bala, have 100 sweets to share between themselves. However, they cannot agree on how to split the shares. Because of their arguing, a random authority figure arrives to impose order. The authority figure demands for Alice to make a sharing proposal (in the form of a sweet split) to Bala, who then has the choice to accept the proposal or not. If Bala does not accept the proposal, he can then make a counter-offer to Alice. This process of offering and counter-offering proceeds back and forth until a proposal is accepted. However, the authority figure, for his troubles, will levy a "friendliness tax" of 20 sweets each time a proposal or counter-proposal is rejected, thus reducing the number of sweets to be shared.

Now, assuming that both Alice and Bala are perfect logicians, and that their aim is to maximize their sweets, what sweet split would Alice make as her first proposal?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Inhumane Treatment of Animals

I read in the forums section a letter by the SPCA regarding the inhumane poisoning of pigeons (for culling purposes). The phrase "inhumane treatment" was used more than once.

To be extremely pedantic, it is obvious that pigeons are not human. To speak of treating animals like humans seems somewhat difficult to support, but I am speaking as a sophist rather than as a philosopher.

Speaking as a philosopher, there does exist a gap between how we should treat humans and how we should treat animals; only the most fanatic would dispute this. But, as with most things, the devil lies in the details; how large should this human-animal gap be? Implicit in the answer also lies the value of the human race; are we merely animals or more than just animals? If we are truly more than beasts, then what separates us from them? And, most chillingly, when we justify X as being the reason for our superiority, what stops us from using X to label those more disadvantaged amongst us as inhumans rather than humans?