Podcast Episode 235: Leon Festinger and the Alien Apocalypse

https://www.maxpixel.net/Spaceship-Cover-Alien-Weird-Ufo-1951536

In 1955, aliens from the planet Clarion contacted a Chicago housewife to warn her that the end of the world was imminent. Psychologist Leon Festinger saw this as a unique opportunity to test a new theory about human cognition. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow him inside a UFO religion as it approaches the apocalypse.

We’ll also try to determine when exactly LBJ became president and puzzle over some wet streets.

See full show notes …

The Drowning Wife

My wife and a stranger are both drowning. I can save only one of them. What should I do? In considering this question in 1981, Bernard Williams suggested that I’m having “one thought too many” if I stop to ponder what morality requires; I should save my wife simply because she’s my wife. Troy Jollimore argues that this should silence all other considerations — a husband must “perceive this consideration as possessing such overwhelming importance that it simply drives everything else from his mind.”

But “This sounds terrible,” writes Raja Halwani. “It is one thing to say that Sam should be motivated by the thought that his wife is drowning, but quite another that this thought should silence all others. The danger here is that even if love takes us out of self-absorption, it throws us into the absorption in another, and this does not sound moral.” Is love a moral emotion?

(Bernard Williams, Moral Luck, 1981; Troy Jollimore, Love’s Vision, 2011; Raja Halwani, Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage, 2018.)

Podcast Episode 233: Flight to Freedom

https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1413687

In 1978 two families hatched a daring plan to escape East Germany: They would build a hot-air balloon and sail it by night across the border. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow their struggles to evade the authorities and realize their dream of a new life in the West.

We’ll also shuffle some vehicles and puzzle over a perplexing worker.

See full show notes …

Seduction

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bust_Of_Bertrand_Russell-Red_Lion_Square-London.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1940 Bertrand Russell was invited to teach logic at the City College of New York.

A Mrs. Kay of Brooklyn opposed the appointment, citing Russell’s agnosticism and his alleged practice of sexual immorality.

In the lawsuit his works were described as “lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrowminded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber.”

“Although he lost the case, the aging Russell was delighted to have been described as ‘aphrodisiac,'” writes Betsy Devine in Absolute Zero Gravity. “‘I cannot think of any predecessors,’ he claimed, ‘except Apuleius and Othello.'”

Podcast Episode 232: The Indomitable Spirit of Douglas Bader

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Squadron_Leader_Douglas_Bader,_CO_of_No._242_Squadron,_seated_on_his_Hawker_Hurricane_at_Duxford,_September_1940._CH1406.jpg

Douglas Bader was beginning a promising career as a British fighter pilot when he lost both legs in a crash. But that didn’t stop him — he learned to use artificial legs and went on to become a top flying ace in World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Bader’s inspiring story and the personal philosophy underlay it.

We’ll also revisit the year 536 and puzzle over the fate of a suitcase.

See full show notes …

Servant Trouble

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HannahMore.jpg

In What the Butler Saw, E.S. Turner reviews the bizarre case of Hannah More, whose servants formed a conspiracy to rob and defraud her. “The most shameless peculation prevailed in the kitchen,” noted the Rev. Henry Thompson. “Orders were issued to the tradesmen in her name of which the servants reaped the benefit. Monies given for charity were appropriated by the servants.”

Worse, the servants held silent parties below stairs after More had retired for the night. At midnight, the servants from neighboring houses would converge on her home in Somerset, “some creeping through hedges, others descending down laurel walks or emerging from thickets” to enjoy “hot suppers laid out with parlour-like elegance.”

Eventually, tired of keeping quiet, they began to organize balls at a hall a mile away. A suspicious guest of More’s, spying from a window, saw the servants depart the house, dressed up and led by the housekeeper and coachman arm in arm. A scullery maid was left behind to admit the returning servants in time for morning prayers.

Told of this, More asked in a faltering voice, “What, Susan unfaithful, who has lived with me so many years?” “Yes.” “And Timothy, whose relations I have fed and clothed?” “Yes.” “And Teddy and Rebecca and Jane?” “Yes, all.” “What? Not one faithful?” “The whole are faithless!”

More resolved to leave them all and find a new home where she could spend her last days “in calmness, prayer, and praise.” She summoned the villains to the drawing room and told them, “You are no longer my servants. By deserting me and my house at midnight to pursue your revels, you all proved yourselves to be unworthy of my confidence. Your unprincipled conduct has driven me from my home, forced me to seek a refuge among strangers.”

She left a quarter’s wages for each of them and departed in a friend’s coach. “I am driven like Eve from Paradise,” she said, “but not by angels.”

Team Players

In human societies, if some individuals fail to cooperate in joint enterprises, there’s often an institution that imposes sanctions on them. If there isn’t, people seem to be willing to punish them directly, even at a cost to themselves. How does that behavior get started? How does a cooperative society “get off the ground”?

In 2007, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Vienna created a model in which individuals can choose either to receive a secure income or to play a risky game. Those who choose to play the game can either pay a fee or choose not to. The fee supports an investment, the proceeds of which are distributed among all the players. If enough of the players pay the fee, then everyone benefits. But if too many players opt out of paying the fee, then the remaining donors suffer.

In order to avoid that situation, the donors are allowed to impose a penalty on the freeloaders, but this incurs a cost for them, so not every donor will choose to enforce it. So overall there are four strategies: nonparticipants don’t play the game at all; freeloaders play but choose not to pay the fee; contributors pay the fee but choose not to impose penalties on the freeloaders; and enforcers play the game and punish the freeloaders.

After many rounds of computer simulation, the researchers were surprised to find that when participation in the game was mandatory, most of the players became freeloaders, and the game fell apart because no one was willing to pay the fees. Adding enforcers at this point couldn’t save the game — they could make no headway against the freeloaders.

But when opting out of the game was permitted — when players could choose to receive a secure income instead of playing the game — many of the freeloaders simply withdrew, leaving behind contributors, enforcers, and a few freeloaders. And now the resulting game was stablest if the enforcers dominated the group, since they ensured that everyone cooperated. If contributors began to outnumber enforcers — that is, if the group became unwilling to punish freeloaders — then the freeloaders took over and everything fell apart again.

“The paradoxical result is that cooperation can be enforced by penalizing freeloaders, but only if participation in the community is voluntary,” writes George Szpiro in A Mathematical Medley. “This reminds us that discipline in the dreaded foreign legion, which legionnaires join of their own free will, is legendary. In the compulsory army, on the other hand, it is often in rather short supply.”

(Christoph Hauert et al., “Via Freedom to Coercion: The Emergence of Costly Punishment,” Science 316:5833 [2007], 1905-1907, via George Szpiro, A Mathematical Medley, 2010.)

Podcast Episode 228: The Children’s Champion

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:251012_Janusz_Korczak_monument_at_Jewish_Cemetery_in_Warsaw_-_05.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the children’s champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved.

We’ll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two cars.

See full show notes …

“Map of the Road to Hell!!”

https://www.loc.gov/item/2013585074/

This is literally the first thing you find if you search the Library of Congress for “map of the road”. I.N. Barrillon drew it in 1858. “Reader! how far have you travelled on this dreadful road? Examine thyself! Turn ye turn ye for why will you die!!”

You can’t make out all the details here (the library has some beautiful larger scans), but it’s amazing what will land you in trouble. The major rivers in Hell are Gambling River, Drunkenness River, and Perdition River, but the tributaries include Chess Creek, Backgammon Branch, Lottery Creek, Egg Nog Creek, Cider Branch, and Lemonade Branch.

In his 1973 Atlas of Fantasy, J.B. Post writes, “The quickest way to the Great Lake of Fire and Brimstone is by the Suicide Rail Road and the Duelist’s Rail Road. One can meander along the road but shortcuts are provided for liars, drunkards, gamblers, and perjurors. All, however, finally go ‘blip’ into the Great Lake.”

“Not shown is the road to Heaven called ‘the Path of Ennui.'”

Reflection

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:No_Known_Restrictions_Christmas_Eve_by_J._Hoover,_no_date_LOC_2122063062.jpg

“All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad.” — G.K. Chesterton, introduction to Dickens’ Christmas Books, 1907