The Runaway Trolley Dilemma

What Is the Right Decision?

What Is the Right Decision?

We tend not to discuss ethical dilemmas in the abstract, if for no other reason that they usually tend to be real posers.Take this famous dilemma: There is a runaway trolley headed in your direction, and in its path there are five people tied to the track. You find you are standing right next to a switch which could shunt the trolley off on a siding. You proceed to pull the switch, only to find there is a single person tied to the track on the siding.

The Utilitarians would say that it is a better thing to sacrifice one life rather than five—all other things being equal. But are they really equal? What if the five people tied to the track are all serial child molesters, and the single person tied to the siding is Pope Francis? Also, are there any people on the trolley? If so, wouldn’t they all risk dying in any case?

There is a variant of this dilemma, but without a switch and a siding. Again, we have a runaway trolley, again with five people tied to the track. You are standing on a footbridge over the track with a fat man whom you don’t know. You are between the runaway trolley and the five persons on the track. Should you push the fat man off the footbridge so that he lands in the path of the trolley, leading to a derailment upon impact?

Is This an Easier Decision?

Is This an Easier Decision?

In the first case, most people would throw the switch in the first case, but few would push the fat man to his death in the path of the trolley.

My own preference is to avoid situations where I am anywhere near any runaway trolleys, especially since I could be considered a fat man myself.

Serendipity: The Singing Letter

Mural of Inca Indians

Mural of Incas and Spanish

I have read some experts that say that the Incas had possessed a form of phonetic writing with knotted cords called quipus, whereas others say that these cords were used only for inventories and such—much as the Minoan Linear A and B was used in Ancient Crete. Last night, I ran into a tale from around 1541 quoted by Peruvian writer and antiquarian Ricardo Palma, which sheds some light on the whole issue:

The time came when the first harvest of melons was taking place in the Barranca melon fields and that marks the beginning of our story.

The overseer selected ten of the best melons, packed them in two boxes and put them on the shoulders of two of the Indians serving there and gave them a letter for the master.

The two Indians had carried the melons a few leagues when they sat down to rest near a wall. As one would expect, the aroma of the fruit awakened the curiosity of the Indians and a battle began between fear and their appetite.

“Do you know something, brother?” said one of them to the other in his Indian dialect. “I have discovered a way to eat some melons without anyone finding out. All we have to do is hide the letter behind the wall. It won’t be able to see us eat so it won’t be able to accuse us of anything.”

The naiveté of the Indians attributed to writing a diabolical and marvelous prestige. They didn’t believe that the letters were only symbols but that they were spirits, which functioned not only as messengers but also as watchmen or spies. [Italics Mine]

The second Indian thought that his companion’s idea was a very good one, so without saying a word, he placed the letter behind the wall, put a rock on top of it and then the two proceeded to devour, not eat, the inviting and delicious fruit.

As they were nearing Lima the second Indian gave himself a blow to the head and said, “Brother, we are making a big mistake. We need to make our burdens equal, because if you carry four and I carry five our master will suspect something.”

“Well said,” replied the other Indian.

And so once again they hid the letter and then they ate a second melon, that delicious fruit that according to the saying is gold before breakfast, silver at noon and death in the evening, for it is true that there is nothing more indigestible and causes more upset stomachs after a full meal.

After the Indians arrived at Don Antonio’s home they delivered to him the letter that announced the fact that the overseer was sending ten melons.

Don Antonio, who had promised to give some of the first melons of the harvest to the archbishop and several other individuals, began to examine what the Indians had brought.

“What do you think you are trying to do, you good-for-nothing thieves?” bellowed the irate landowner. “The overseer sent ten melons and two are missing.” Whereupon Don Antonio read the letter once more.

“There were only eight, master,” protested the two Indians.

“The letter says ten and you have eaten two of them on the road. You over there! Give these scoundrels a good beating—a dozen blows for each one.”

And the poor Indians, after receiving a thorough thrashing, sat in the corner of the patio gloomily considering what had happened to them.

Then one of them said, “You see, brother? The letter sings.”

Don Antonio happened to hear what the Indian had said, whereupon he shouted, “Yes, you rascals. And you better watch your step and not try any more funny business because now you know the letter sings.”

And Don Antonio related the incident to his friends at the next tertulia. The saying became popular and eventually made its way to the Mother Country.

The quote is from Palma’s Peruvian Traditions (1872-1910).

Listening to Irish Music

Playing the Celtic Harp

Playing the Celtic Harp

The Big Irish Fair that Martine and I attended last Sunday was mainly for the music (and not to be catapulted into the afterlife by a rampaging sheep—about which see yesterday’s post). Martine and I spent most of our time listening to Celtic harp solos and ensemble playing by a group primarily from Orange County. Soloists included Dennis Doyle and Joanna Mell, who were excellent. Martine was particularly eager to listen to attend as she had never heard any live before. And I enjoyed it as much as she did.

Kathy Sierra and Maggie Butler of Golden Bough

Kathy Sierra and Maggie Butler of Golden Bough

On the same stage where the harps were played, there was also a talented trio from Modesto that performs Celtic music under the name of Golden Bough. I couldn’t get a good photo of all three playing at the same time, so I inadvertently cut out the multi-talented Paul Espinoza. In addition to playing the harp, they also played half a dozen other instruments in their concert of music from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Spanish Galicia. I was impressed at the fact that they kept their end up for more than an hour and a half without taking a break and with no diminution of quality.

Irish Stepdancing

Irish Stepdancing

Finally, because I am a dirty old man at heart, I convinced Martine to watch the Irish stepdancing competition so that I could stare at the young legs of the bewigged teen dancers. I do not profess to understand the popularity of stepdancing. (It doesn’t hold a candle to Hungarian folk dancing, such as practiced in L.A. by the Kárpátok Hungarian Folk Ensemble—though I may be prejudiced—but the young Irish girls did have cute legs.)

There was also a lot of bagpiping, but nothing close to the standard of what we heard in Scotland.

Death by Charging Sheep?

Bad Dog!

Bad Dog!

Yesterday, Martine and I went to a large Irish Fair held at El Dorado Park in Long Beach. Thanks to an extremely fine perception of space, I was missed by a fraction of an inch by a charging sheep during the sheepherder dog demonstration.There I was, standing on the sidelines between two tents when, suddenly, someone let the Bouvier des Flandres out of his cage (above), and he charged the sheep, sending them scattering at top speed in all directions. Although the Bouvier was at the show, he was not yet trained to herd sheep without representing a threat to them. The upshot was, I saw my life pass in front of my eyes while being charged by one of the sheep. Before I knew it, all of them had disappeared behind a line of port-a-potties.

Within ten minutes, however, the real trained sheep dogs had rounded up the miscreant lambchops (see photo below) and brought them back to the demonstration area. The Bouvier was likewise found and promptly caged.

One of These Sheep Came Close to Head-Butting Me into the Next World

One of These Sheep Came Close to Head-Butting Me into the Next World

In the end, I found the sheepherding demonstration so interesting that I forgot my former peril. The music at the fair was great (more about that later). The only thing I didn’t like was the food. I never thought of cajun franks, funnel cakes, and kettle corn as being particularly Irish. There wasn’t a trace of lamb stew in evidence, nor even baked tatties. But that’s to be expected when there was a single caterer who brought along a fleet of highly miscellaneous food trucks.

With the Warbirds


At the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles

At various points across the United States, there are little flying museums usually tended to by retired military aviators and their families. One such is the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, which is located along the south edge of the local general aviation airport. In addition to the old fighter jets and prop planes, helicopters, jeeps, and ammo, there is adjoining all the weaponry a car exhibit called the Woodland Auto Display.

After leaving my brother and sister-in-law in Paso, Martine and I headed east on Route 46, stopping first for a couple of hours to see the displays. We weren’t able to give much time to the exhibits parked outside, largely because the temperature was 106° Fahrenheit (or 41° Celsius). Martine loves to visit these old military museums (including the one at Palm Springs, by the Santa Monica Airport, and the Torrance airport). It’s sad to think that the vets who flew these aircraft are beginning their own inexorable journey toward the setting sun. Very likely many of these museums won’t be around in a few years.

Considering the news from Iraq, the bomb photographed below might well become more topical:

Leftover Bomb from 2003 Invasion of Iraq

Leftover Bomb from 2003 Invasion of Iraq

After our visit to see the warbirds, Martine and I headed further east on 46 and 41 until we joined Interstate 5 around Kettleman City. Our destination for the night was the Harris Ranch Inn at Coalinga, where we spent the night in air conditioned comfort and gorged ourselves on prime beef.

Ugly But Magnificent

Andean Condor

Andean Condor

Andean Condors, like all members of the vulture family, are not exactly cute; but with their 10-foot wingspans, they are awe-inspiring. The only time I ever saw Vultur gryphus was on in Argentinian Patagonia, on my way to the dock to take a cruise to see the glaciers that feed into Lago Argentino. There were two of them a few miles out of El Calafate visible from the left side of the bus. Of course, by the time I got my camera out, they had swooped around the hill and out of sight.

In Peru, I hope to photograph them at Colca Canyon, about a hundred miles northwest of Arequipa. The Canyon has a depth of 13,650 feet (4,160 meters), making it twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I will try to take a tour that stops at Cruz del Condor, where they tend to glide in large numbers past a viewing point looking for their favorite carrion. I hope I can get a few pictures to bring back and post on this blog site.

Colca Canyon is probably the third most popular tourist destination in Peru, after Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.


The Real Reason Cantor Lost

Read On for My Peerless Analysis

Read On for My Peerless Analysis

This may strike you as being unscientific, but the reason Eric Cantor lost his seat in Virginia is that no one liked him. He was always a whiny presence on the Washington scene.

Of course, the fact that he may be replaced by an even more dangerous Tea-Party-type is certainly no cause for celebration. The fact is that people who live in Confederate sh*thole districts are not likely to vote for anyone who will do anything but attempt to govern by hijacking or obstructionism. We live in the Disunited States of America and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

You may recall the whole “Left Behind” Evangelical myth that, in the End Times, the saved are wafted to Paradise while everyone else has to suffer the various beasts of the Apocalypse while the saved are eating Corn Nuts and drinking Duff Beer while fluffing their wings and cheering on the Four Horsemen. I think that the people who vote for insufferable right-wing nutjobs have been “left behind” by science, the economy, technology, and everything associated with good sense. All they’re left with is Jesus and their guns.

God help the rest of us!


Beats Greyhound Hands Down

Cruz Del Sur (Southern Cross) Is One of Peru’s Premier Bus Lines

Cruz Del Sur (Southern Cross) Is One of Peru’s Premier Bus Lines

For some reason I cannot quite fathom, Martine likes to go to Sacramento via Greyhound. (Perhaps it’s because the airport is many miles north of the city.) Today I was doing some research on returning to Lima from Cusco. Originally, I planned to fly; but then I realized that I would not only have to pony up for the flight, but also I’d have to book a hotel for the night. Then I looked at Cruz Del Sur’s website, and my eyes popped out.

I had some good feelings about South American buses from my experiences in Argentina, but some of the the long-distance Peruvian lines look really good. Probably the best of the bunch are Cruz Del Sur, Ormeño (which has a 6,002 mile route—the longest in the world—between Caracas, Venezuela and Buenos Aires, Argentina), and Oltursa. Many have what are called Executivo or Cama services, which include seats that recline from 160-180º, plus a lot of other extras. The Crucero Suite service includes these, plus meals (included in the price), stewards/stewardesses, entertainment with personal headphones and screens, two restrooms per bus, air conditioning and heating, reading lamps, a kit including blanket and pillow, and bingo. Check out this Cruz Del Sur website in English and compare it to the increasingly trashy public transportation services on offer in the United States.

Of course, nothing is perfect in this world. In the summer of 2013, a Cruz Del Sur bus full of American, European, and Asian tourists was held up outside of Ayacucho by eight armed bandits in the middle of the night. They pulled the bus off the road and proceeded to rob the passengers of over $50,000 in cash and personal goods. You can read the story in Peru This Week. Ayacucho is a dangerous place that served as the center of the Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) guerrilla insurgency in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Peru is a deceptively large country: From Cusco to Lima is a 21-22 hour bus ride with a single stop on the way. I kind of hope it isn’t Ayacucho.


Getting Off Our High Horse

Miniature Mare and Her Foal

Miniature Mare and Her Foal

While we were in Solvang last week, Martine made a request to visit the Quicksilver Ranch, where miniature horses are raised for sale. Huell Howser had done one of his famous “California’s Gold” episodes about the place.) We chose a good time to go because all the mares and their foals that were between six and eight weeks old were herded into a pen, from where they had their hooves cut back and their manes trimmed. According to one of the ranch hands, all the foals had already been sold and were being taken care of until they were old enough to be separated from their very protective mothers.

Wherever the foals went, the mares followed closely, as in the above photograph. Although signs were posted all over the fence warning of what could happen if someone tried to pet the horses (their fingers could be chomped), Martine couldn’t resist petting the foals on the back, as in the photo below.

Martine Petting Foal

Martine Petting Foal

In fact, Martine was so intent on looking at all the little horses that, after two and a half hours, I finally convinced her to leave the ranch without sneaking one or more of them away with her. (After all, I had planned to visit the Book Loft, which always had a few titles that beckoned to me.)

I wondered what kind of people bought the little colts. According to the hands, they were scattered all over Southern California. Although I didn’t say, I had the feeling that most of them went to the spoiled rotten kids of super-rich families. I can’t imagine the horses liking that very much. I am sure that they would love having Martine to play with them and take care of them, but I’m afraid that a horse wouldn’t go well with our two-bedroom apartment in West Los Angeles. Maybe, when we buy ourselves a ranch….

In the Land of the Bakery Vikings

Martine, Bloodthirsty Viking, and Me

Martine, Bloodthirsty Viking, and Me in Solvang

As I mentioned in my last post, Martine and I left town last Thursday for my niece Hilary’s wedding in Paso Robles. There will be plenty of wedding photos later, but we let my brother Dan’s neighbor Dennis take all the wedding pics: By the time I was ready (I was the officiant), the lighting was starting to go. Whenever we visit my brother in Paso, we usually like to break our trip in Solvang, a hundred plus year old Danish colony in Santa Barbara County. The town is crawling with bakeries (see the cookie tubs in the window to Martine’s left in the above photo. It also has a great bookstore called the Solvang Book Loft, where I bought two Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels. For Martine, it is also the site of the Quicksilver Ranch, where miniature horses are raised for sale.

In the next week or so, I’ll show you some of the pictures I took of the miniature horses and their colts. They were incredibly cute—and they let Martine pet them (even though she wasn’t supposed to!).

We got back to Los Angeles this afternoon. Our feeling was one of relief, because after we left Solvang, the temperature shot up to over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and stayed that way until we approached our coastal area, where the temperature is twenty-five degrees cooler.