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The Whippet #29: globe-spanning, internet-connected, telepathic rat-king

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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Good morning Passenger Pigeons!

Today we are talking Trolley Problems, only we're not, because I am sick of them and they're boring. Trolley Problems are basically, you're a train driver, your train is about to kill five kids, do you divert it so it kills a rail worker instead. Since it's obviously better to for one person to die than five, the question is around whether you can actually make that decision when it involves pulling the trigger yourself.

But they really jumped the shark and now it's all "is it better to kill one doctor or five kids, since that doctor might save more than five kids' lives in his career?" and "is it better to kill a loose cannon who doesn't play by the rules, or a world-weary detective who's three days from retirement?" It's just nonsense at this point.

The problem:

  1. It tends to stay way too hypothetical because most of us never encounter a situation where we have to choose which person to kill. When it feels abstract, you don't really feel the difficulty of the decision. Stuff like "should you tell someone if you find out their partner is cheating on them" feels thornier because it's closer to home and the stakes are lower. On that note -
  2. As soon as you put death on the line, it becomes a numbers game. When it comes down to it, we're pretty much always going to go for most-lives-saved. That's not an interesting dilemma. The stakes are too high; it wipes out all the other choices.
  3. The outcome is known: death for death. The problem with that old "should you torture someone if it will save 1000 lives" hypothetical is it doesn't reflect most of the problems with torture: you don't know if it will save those lives, you don't know what they know. You don't know if someone will be angry or (eventually) glad they were told about the infidelity. You don't know if the guy on the train track is a good guy or not. You have to choose without knowing.

Medium-stakes dilemmas are really tricky to think of by the way. Ummmm..."Should you carjack someone if it's the only way to see your mum in hospital before she dies?" Again with pt. 3 though, you don't know if there'd be time to catch the train or not.

More relevant to me in any case, "should you learn to drive in case you ever need to carjack someone?"

Please send me any medium-stakes ethical dilemmas you got, and I will try to answer them. In the meantime, I came across the following, and I guarantee you'll struggle with them more than any Trolley Problem you've ever read:

Ethical dilemmas for interpreters

In each of the following scenarios, you are an interpreter hired by the public service, meaning you are not working for the police, but neither are you working for the accused. You're meant to interpret neutrally and faithfully.

A man suspected of murder is being interviewed by the police. He denies any involvement in the crime whatsoever. The interviewing police officer leaves the room for two minutes.

The man becomes agitated and tells you: “Look, it was an accident. I only wanted to scare her. I’m not guilty.”

The officer comes back with his coffee. What do you do?

At a police station in an Eastern European country a young man on a stag-night trip from England is being interviewed following a street brawl which he had apparently initiated. A police officer tells him that he faces a prison sentence but adds that ‘there’s another way of dealing with this situation’ and leaves the room for a short time.

You are aware that the young man has just been invited to offer a bribe but he has no idea this is the case. What do you do?

A French woman originally from Lyon is seeking a divorce from her English husband, who had cheated on her and wouldn’t let her work. The judge grants her the divorce but has to decide on the amount of financial settlement she is to receive from the respondent. The judge asks her about the market value of the house she has kept in Lyon. She says it’s worth ₤30,000 but, a native of Lyon, you know that this kind of property is in fact worth at least ten times more.

What do you do?


We would agree, I think, that interpreting includes cultural context as well as the literal word-for-word translation - you would translate an idiom into a relevant one in English - but does "cultural context" include house prices? Or the fact that a bribe is being offered? Does "neutrally" translating the bribe request make you complicit? In the first scenario, does "neutral" mean not translating anything that wasn't intended to be said to the police? I think that one's relatively easy because a death is involved, but what it if it was a less serious crime?

These scenarios all come from the Centre for Forensic Linguistics, and they're based on real situations that have happened. The CFL is using them to point out how little ethical guidance is given to interpreters, and to call for more.

Their work is endlessly fascinating: they were called in as expert witnesses for a guy who said parts of his testimony had been faked - the cops had written extra bits in the margins and blank lines after he signed it. Case study is here, pulling apart the differences between the two parts of the document [PDF].

I also enjoyed their breakdown of Malicious Communications [PDF] into:

  • Threats: Personal
  • Threats: Professional
  • Abuse: Unclear justification
  • Abuse: Clear justification

(justification meaning they gave a reason, not that the reason seemed fair enough to the linguists)

Biodiversity Reclamation Suits: Extinct bird costumes for urban pigeons

Paradise Parrot and Guadalupe Caracara, 2013, Laurel Roth Hope

"The colorful crocheted sweaters are each designed to fit a standard urban pigeon, complete with a hood retrofitted with eye and beak holes. Each suit represents an extinct bird species and is displayed on a hand-carved pigeon mannequin." Click through for more birdsuits

Laurel Roth Hope is a former park ranger and most of her art seems to be around what animals mean to humans, kind of brutal and reverent at the same time. Severed gorilla hands treated as saints' reliquaries (Not real! Wood!), peacock sculptures made out of human attempts at the same thing: fake fingernails, jewellery, nail polish, hair ornaments, fake eyelashes

Implant gives rats telepathic powers

Basically there's two rats in two isolated cells, wired up brain-to-brain. The "encoder rat" sees a light appear above one of two levers (the one that will give it food). The "decoder rat" gets no visual signal, but is able to learn from the encoder rat which level to press. If the decoder rat fails to press the right lever, it doesn't get a bonus treat, so it's encouraged to... think harder.

Although the information was transmitted in real time, the learning process was not instantaneous.

"[It] takes about 45 days of training an hour a day," said Prof Nicolelis. "There is a moment in time when... it clicks. Suddenly the [decoder] animal realises: 'Oops! The solution is in my head. It's coming to me' and he gets it right."

"The scientists also showed that the direct brain-to-brain communication, carried by fine wires connecting one rat to the other, can be extended over the internet, with rats in Brazil communicating with rats in North Carolina, some 7,500km away."

As always, there's some classic worrying quotes from the scientists involved:

  • 'He added that the invasive nature of the research raised ethical questions: "It's very, very interesting isn't it?"'
    - which you will note is not really an ethical question.
  • “We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net."
  • "What this shows is that the technology is here. And the sort of things we should be talking about is: Why are we doing this, and what do we hope to get out of it?"
    - questions I would argue you should have asked before creating a globe-spanning, internet-connected, telepathic rat-king?

Sources: The Independent, BBC

Law & Order dunk-dunk

Officially it's called "The Clang" but you know what I mean. It was composed by Mike Post and he gets royalties every time it's used. It's an amalgamation of about a dozen different sounds, including a banging gavel, a jail cell door slamming closed, and the sound of 500 Japanese monks simultaneously stamping down onto a hardwood floor. (Wikipedia)

It must be so strange to be a composer, and be famous for this one tiny sound effect. Or how Arthur Conan Doyle was ambivalent towards Sherlock Holmes ("In an attempt to deflect publishers' demands for more Holmes stories, he raised his price to a level intended to discourage them, but found they were willing to pay even the large sums he asked. As a result, he became one of the best-paid authors of his time.")

16th Century poison cabinet hidden inside hollowed-out book

As the article says, the line between poison and medicine is pretty unclear - "the dose makes the poison" - and there are innocent reasons for hiding it. (Apothecaries were kind of treated half like poisoners because of the above deal, plus if you were travelling, you would want to keep them safe).

There's another photo that shows all the labels clearly, so I looked them up, don't say I never do nothing for you.

The only ones on that list that aren't super toxic are opium poppy and valerian, both of which make you sleepy. I know I said there could be innocent reasons for hiding it, and the skeleton could just be a doctor thing, but look, I'm not a historian, I'm allowed to jump to wild conclusions about the long dead, and I say whoever owned this book was a vampire hunter and they used it to make poisoned bait.

Unsolicited Advice

A few skincare tips / why you should avoid Lush

This is partially born out of being in Lush the other day and hearing the staff give terrible advice to this poor kid with acne, and not being able to say anything. Sorry Lush, you smell delicious but only people with robust and perfect skin should ever put your stuff on their face.

Acne is a skin disease, not an Unclean Thing you can scrub away. Exfoliating the fuck out of your skin will make it worse, not better. You need to treat it gently like a little hurting baby.

Anything that "feels" clean is probably too harsh for your skin, especially if you have acne. That means: peppermint, cinnamon, anything tingly. They are volatile oils, irritants. Lavender is also an irritant: it's smell is calming but it shouldn't be put directly on your skin.

All citrus oils - lemon, grapefruit, tangerine, bergamot, yuzu - are irritants, and worse, they are UV-sensitising so if you use them during the day, you will increase the amount of damage sun does to you.

A huge number of products use them because they smell amazing and they're natural and they seem like they should be good for you, but they're not, please keep them away from your skin. Honestly be wary of anything that smells really good (sorry. volatile oils.).

Related: scrubs with apricot shells etc cause microtears in your skin and shouldn't be used on your face.

Soaps that leave your face "squeaky clean" are too harsh. You should feel soft and not oily but not stripped. One of the best things you can do for your skin is use a low pH cleanser. Your skin is slightly acidic (5.5.) and water is 7, so water will be stripping and drying to your skin. Soap usually has a higher pH than even water, so it is pretty harsh from your skin's perspective (again: Lush).

Look for things labelled "pH-balanced" or google - there are skincare nerds on the internet who test the pH of everything (I use the spectacularly named Missha Super Aqua Oxygen Micro Visible Deep Cleanser, which I can recommend, but it's really just the pH that counts).

90% of the time (made-up %) when people's skin is too oily, it's actually overproducing oil because it's being dried out. People with oily or acneic skin tend to go harsher and harsher with their products, and it just gets worse.

Be sweet to your poor face!!

Also re: Lush, other than all the herbal stuff, which is often actively bad for your skin, their formulations are really basic which is okay I guess but kind of waste of an opportunity to put some evidence-backed ingredients on your face. And then they lie to you about it and say "this is calming", "this is balancing", or whatever and it's literally all just made up out of nothing because there are no ingredients that back it up, and it is very hard to shop when you know people are lying to your face but you would be the rude one if you corrected them?

I mean, come on. [Link to summary of research on niacinamide in skincare, it is extensive y'all, there is no excuse for an entire brand and multinational chain not to be using it anywhere in their products, okay I'm done.]

If you want solicited advice, including skincare advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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