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Trolleys come to Terror

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a western koan makes it onto German TV? ]

What Hala Jaber calls a supermarket trolley in this tweet is not what this post is about — but it sure does connect trolley and terror!


Here’s the terror side of things, in a tweet from John Horgan:

The BBC halls it an “interactive courtroom drama interactive courtroom drama centred on a fictional act of terror” and notes:

The public was asked to judge whether a military pilot who downs a hijacked passenger jet due to be crashed into a football stadium is guilty of murder.

Viewers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria gave their verdict online or by phone. The programme was also aired in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The vast majority called for the pilot, Lars Koch, to be acquitted.

Here’s the setup:

In the fictional plot, militants from an al-Qaeda offshoot hijack a Lufthansa Airbus A320 with 164 people on board and aim to crash it into a stadium packed with 70,000 people during a football match between Germany and England.

“If I don’t shoot, tens of thousands will die,” German air force Major Lars Koch says as he flouts the orders of his superiors and takes aim at an engine of the plane.

The jet crashes into a field, killing everyone on board.

So, is the pilot guilty, or not guilty?


At the very least, he has our sympathy — but how does that play out in legal proceedings?

What’s so fascinating here is the pilot’s dilemma, which resembles nothing so much as a zen koan.

Except for the Trolley Problem:

Image from Wikimedia by McGeddon under license CC-BY-SA-4.0


Substitute an Airbus for the trolley, 164 people for the lone individual on the trolley line, and 70,000 people for the cluster of five — and the pilot for the guy who can make a decision and switch the tracks.

There you have it: terror plot and trolley problem running in parallel.

To be honest, I think the full hour-plus movie is far more immersive, to use a term from game design, than the Trolley Problem stated verbally as a problem in logic — meaning that the viewer is in some sense projected, catapulted into the fighter-pilot’s hot seat — in his cockpit, facing a high speed, high risk emergency, and in court, on trial for murder.

It’s my guess that more people would vote for the deaths of 164 under this scenario than for the death of one in the case of the trolley — but that’s a guess.


The German film scenario — adapted from a play by Ferdinand von Schirach — is indeed a courtroom drama, a “case” in the sense of “case law”. And it’s suggestive that koans, too, are considered “cases” in a similar vein. Here, for instance, is a classic definition of koans :

Kung-an may be compared to the case records of the public law court. Kung, or “public”, is the single track followed by all sages and worthy men alike, the highest principle which serves as a road for the whole world. An, or “records”, are the orthodox writings which record what the sages and worthy men regard as principles [..]

This principle accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like a poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. [..]

The so-called venerable masters of Zen are the chief officials of the public law courts of the monastic community, as it were, and their collections of sayings are the case records of points that have been vigorously advocated.


Relevant texts:

  • John Daido Loori, Sitting with Koans
  • John Daido Loori, The True Dharma Eye
  • Trend-watching humor

    Saturday, June 25th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — the Brits, Google & Brexit, plus some arcane religious info for netizens ]

    A Brit response to Brexit results: Google!!

    No, really!


    And while we’re at it — you’ve probably seen this before —

    Wondering which religion to choose? Google!!


    Somewhere, a couple of machine learning algorithms are laughing at us.

    Let the man keep his own silence or speak for himself

    Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — regarding the conflicting reports on Imran Yousuf’s religious affiliation ]




    If the Orlando Marine hero Imran Yousuf is a practicing Muslim, that would tend to balance out the Muslim claim of the shooter, Omar Mateen. Yousuf might be Muslim, he might be Hindu, he might be — who knows? He’s certainly a Marine, which (Semper Fi) is a faith or fidelity of its own. In the meantime, let’s let the man keep his own silence, or speak for himself.

    Trump as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother

    Monday, September 28th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — on finger-based decision theory ]

    Surely this is the answer to Decision Theory and Human Behavior — don’t we all do it this way?

    Image via Elkus

    Saturday, September 19th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — a comparative mapping of time and eternity? ]

    From my POV, this image is superb:

    Adam Elkus Chess image

    It demonstrates both the experience of the human chess player, who cannot in general play by a “brute force” method since the tree of choices exceeds his neuronal capacity, and the rational experience of the brute force method, illuminated in the case of a problem small enough in scale for artful representation.

    And part of what’s interesting — wonderful — here is the fact that the chess board is graphically far less beautiful, I dare to say, than the representation of the corresponding tree of choices.

    And it reminds me of nothing so much as Mark Lombardi‘s fine art “conspiracy” graphs, like this one:

    lombardi graph

    — taken from Lombardi’s book, Global Networks, in which the artist draws the networks of influence surrounding eg oil and war in the Middle East — and which I’m sure can be found with a little effort for less than the $234.63 atvwhich Amazon currently offers a used paperback copy.


    With thanks to Adam Elkus for pointing me to this concise icon of the Garden of Forking Paths.

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