Author: bja

The Trolley Problem: Will Our Cars Grow up to Be Heroes?

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the world’s most famous ‘thought experiments’. It may lack the pop-cultural punch of ‘Schrödinger’s famous cat‘, but it still stands out as an absolute zinger – it’s called ‘The Trolley Problem‘.

Phillipa Foote first sketched out the idea in 1967 and it was a philosophical question designed to probe at the soft underbelly of your ethics. Many subtle variations have sprung up since, but the core scenario goes like this:

  1. Imagine a runaway trolley car (or train) is careering down a track towards a group of five workers. You have no way to warn them and they will most certainly all die without some kind of intervention.
  2. You have control of a switch lever that can divert the trolley into a side-track, instantly saving our five workers. However, there’s another person standing on that side-track who will now have no opportunity to escape a ‘hurtling trolley death’.


What Would You Do?

  • Do nothing, witness five deaths, but bear no direct responsibility for the loss of life.
  • Or take action, save five lives, but personally bring about the death of another human.
  • It’s a tough problem and there’s no easy or unequivocally right answer. My daughter wanted to shout at them all to move but that’s not an option.

    For what it’s worth, most people choose to sacrifice the single person. The greater good.

    However, the most common variation introduces a new person and is rather uncharitably called ‘The Fat Man’ scenario. In this story, you can choose to save the workers by – as nasty as it might sound – pushing a rather generously proportioned man in front of the oncoming trolley.

    Unsurprisingly, most people are appalled by this idea. Regardless of the upside, surely killing an innocent man by pushing him in front of a train is the act of a monster?!

    Of course, in a strictly mathematical sense, the only difference between the two stories above, is the method by which you choose to dispatch the unfortunate person. Levers are certainly much cleaner than a well-timed elbow. Does the method matter or is it all about the outcome?

    If you’re having trouble getting your head around the idea, Harry Shearer – he of Simpson’s and Spinal Tap fame – made a great video for BBC Radio 4 in 2014 that explains the problem brilliantly.

    Lucky That Thought Experiments are Harmless, Right?

    Of course, this is all just theory. Brain games. A mischievous pub conversation or, at worst, a chance for philosophy nerds to show off at dinner parties.

    Not quite.

    As we’re all aware, most of the world’s major car companies are investing in driverless technology. We know these systems are already safer that the average human driver. Unlike us, robot cars are built to scan surrounding traffic thousands of times every second and instantly adjust to changes.

    But they can’t predict everything. Tires fail catastrophically. Trees fall unpredictably. Drivers suffer seizures. Very occasionally driverless cars are going to be in their own ‘Trolley Car’ scenarios. And – presumably – software developers are currently writing the decision algorithms to handle them. Set a ‘0’ and we go straight – set a ‘1’ and we turn.

    It raises some heavy moral questions.

    • If you paid for a car, would you expect it to prioritize your safety over others?
    • Is it a pure numbers game of ‘save the most humans’?
    • Should the age of the people make a difference? Perhaps babies get preference?
    • Should the car be taking into account the estimated body weights of potential accident victims?
    • Should prestige cars make different decisions to economy cars?
    • Would Donald Trump’s car accelerate? (jk)

    Are software engineers even equipped to take on these kinds of tricky ethical questions? It’s certainly not part of most computer science courses. Perhaps Google, Volvo, and Ford need to be hiring more philosophers and ethicists.

    With currently only a few hundred self-driving cars on the planet, these questions still falls close to the realm of the ‘thought experiment’.

    But 10 years from now there could be millions of self-driving cars making life or death decisions every day. Things are about to get ‘real’– fast.

    May you live in interesting times.

The First Rule Of Good Software Design? First, Do No Harm!

Who amongst us hasn’t at some time been cursed by the autocorrect gremlin?

1485352276autocorrectYou tap out a ‘letter-perfect’ message, dart your thumb to ‘SEND’, only to watch in slow-motion horror as the autocorrect gremlin decides you couldn’t have meant THAT, right? A moment later it has overridden your words with something ludicrous before sending it on its way before you can object.

It’s like having a little Mr. Bean in your pocket.

I particularly love the following example — mainly because it didn’t happen to me.

This is one of those cases of product designers trying to help us, but accidentally doing the opposite. A misspelled message of ‘I am leaving noo’ would have come off as forgivably sloppy, but not as heart-attack inducing as ‘I’m leaving you’. Less funny too.

Still, as funny as autocorrect fails can be, I suspect the total impact of autocorrect is a win. The benefit of the fixes outweighs the fails.

Sometimes these attempts to help can be more damaging.

So, is this a date?

One of the newer ‘UI helpers’ we’ve seen in the last decade is the ability for applications to recognize dates in plain text.

Although, as humans, we skip between date formats with relative ease, it’s only been recently that software has been sophisticated enough to understand that the following all refer to the same point in time:

– Wed 25th Jan
– 25–1–2017
– Wednesday, 1/25/2017
– 1/25

In fact, applications like Gmail, MS-Word and Slack are even clever enough to understand concepts like ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next Friday’ as dates that you can click on to turn into events or appointments.

This can be really helpful — until it’s not…

Please Stop Helping

Although Microsoft isn’t quite the global juggernaut it once was, their ability to offer their software very affordably to schools, universities, and academia has kept them dominant in the education and research sector. The vast majority of the world’s university studies and papers are produced using some combination of MS-Word, Excel or Access. A feather for MS caps.

Unfortunately, last year it was reported that Microsoft’s Office suite was responsible for breaking or invalidating about 20% of genetics studies since 2004.

How did this happen?

As with most sciences, Genetics has its own language and vocabulary of terms that most of us will never encounter. For instance, you probably didn’t know that…


Septin 2 (or SEPT2) is a protein which seems to be used in the tracking and analysis of tumors and cancers (yes, I’m out of my depth here). It’s commonly referred to as ‘SEPT2’ in studies. It looks like a little masquerade mask.
Membrane-Associated Ring Finger (C3HC4) 8 (or MARCH8)

MARCH8 is a gene found in creatures from mice to trout to humans. It may have anti-viral properties and it often — with good reason — shortened to ‘MARCH8’.
Many of these studies are dozens, if not hundreds, of pages long and individual Excel tables may list ‘SEPT2’, ‘MARCH5’ or ‘MARCH8’ many thousands of times.

How does Excel handle these gene names?

As you probably guessed — Excel and MS Word try to convert each and every one of those genes into a helpful date. In fact, altogether there are at least 25 different known gene names that get automatically renamed when imported into Excel.

“That’s not a gene, sir — it’s a calendar event!!”

The real kicker? When Excel auto-converts the gene into a date, it permanently forgets the original state. You can convert it to 25 different formats of September 2nd, but ‘UNDO’ simply deletes the text rather than returning it to original ‘SEPT2’.

Of course, if you know to turn off the defaults before importing your data, you’ll have no problem. Many researchers know to do this. Still, this problem has been detected in 720 of 3,600 genetics papers since 2004, so this is no ‘freak occurrence’.

We’ll never know precisely what impact this has had on genetics and medical research. But corrupted data simply HAS to weaken the quality of the results. Scientists build on other scientist’s data, and we know that data is flawed.

Might we be closer to a cure for cancer or antibiotic-resistant superbugs if all this corrupt data was clean?
Probably — though we’ll never know exactly how much closer.

“First, do no harm”

This idea is one of the central principles of medicine. In other words:

“You’re better to do nothing, than do something that might make things worse.”

We don’t have a set of universal tenets that we adhere to in designing software, but gee,… that’s a good first design principle, isn’t it?

“When designing new features, first, do no harm.”

Web Layout 101: Vertical Rhythm is a Drummer

Designers and front-end coder tend to think more about columns than rows. That’s not surprising. As most devices are designed to scroll vertically, our page width is more limited than our page height, so dividing up the horizontal space seems like a natural place to start.

Vertical Baseline Rhythm

The vertical baseline rhythm – sometimes called the ‘vertical measure’ – is a grid of horizontal lines that you can use to hang your typography in. It’s not unlike the light-blue lines on a grade school work book.

Richard Rutter describes it like this:

Headings, subheads, block quotations, footnotes, illustrations, captions and other intrusions into the text create syncopations and variations against the base rhythm of regularly leaded lines. These variations can and should add life to the page, but the main text should also return after each variation precisely on beat and in phase.
The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web

Often, even though we can’t see the actual underlying grid, we’re aware of it through a feeling of balance and ease in the layout. We might not know why it feels ‘right’, but we know it does.

But does that mean every page element has to bow to the grid?

No. Not necessarily.

How Does Wallpaper Magazine… Roll?

Wallpaper is a magazine that grew up in print. Their print layouts have always been neat, airy and classy with emphasis on attractive type and low ornamentation. Wallpaper’s online presence honors that approach.

Wallpaper Mag

At first glance there isn’t an obvious grid – to my eye anyway.

But roll a 25px line-height grid across it and things becomes clearer. Elements aren’t always locked to each line – though some are – but many float inside the lines provided.

Vertical Baseline Rhythm is not a religion

Vertical Baselines are a handy tool but they shouldn’t take over your design. There was a time where I spent too much sweat trying to bend every page element to obey my mighty grid rules.
I was battling typographic percentages and margins and ‘hitting the grid’ became a goal in itself, rather than a tool to help me design better. That’s not fun or very useful.

It’s better to look at vertical baselines like a strong bass drum in a band. A strong beat marks out the space for the rest of the band to play in. But if everyone is bang on the beat, you probably have a fairly boring marching band (no offense to marching bands).

Personally, I like to set up a strong grid and use it. If there’s space between headings or paragraphs, it might as well be 1, 2, or 3 whole ‘vertical units’ – rather than 1.3 or 2.75 units. The feature image height might as well be exactly 12 units tall as 12.3 units, as the image’s bottom edge is now more likely to line up with any text along side it.

But if, say, the caption on those image looks too spacey when spaced over 25px line-heights, that’s fine. Just make it look good.

The grid is a trusted advisor – not a master