Mouse Utopia

I’ve just read an interesting piece on a scientist who tried to create a utopia for mice and his results.

Science fiction writers have often presented a pessimistic vision of the future, where overpopulation is the problem and nihilism and violence are the consequences. That authors take this route is understandable as a functioning society is not much of a backdrop for a story. Also, despair is easier than hope.

It’s heartening that the scientist in the piece to which I link above was disappointed by the pessimistic fiction that he inspired. Whatever happens to our population and environment, we’re going to have to keep on keeping on.

In spite of the recent ugliness in the streets of London, I still feel that urban living and constantly being surrounded by other people is infinitely to be preferred to living like Robinson Cruesoe.

Paying People not to be Bad

An idea that has been working its way around my head for a few days is to do with paying people not to do bad things. We are generally confortable with the idea of punishing people who commit crimes. Rewarding people who do good deeds and are successful is also popular. However, rewarding people who are likely to commit a crime but choose not to is controversial. It is unfair to those who are not likely to commit the crime, as they receive no reward but are equally innocent.

One example of paying people not to commit a crime is a publicly subsidised taxi service intended to reduce drink driving. Somebody goes to a bar and drinks alcohol. They might decide to drive home or take a taxi. Their decision to drive, and commit a undoubtedly serious crime, might be based on the risk of having an accident (which many foolishly ignore), the risk of being stopped by the police and the price of a taxi fare.

The government can try to solve this issue by promoting awareness of the risks of drink driving, increasing the importance of the first consideration in the drinker’s mind. Many countries have gut-wrenching adverts showing the harrowing effects of accidents that have resulted from drink driving. This puts the dangers to the front of people’s minds and makes drink driving less socially acceptable. However, alcohol is a notorious judgement inhibitor. Putting aside the thought of danger and feeling contempt for do-gooders are all too easy when drunk.

With regard to the second consideration, the state can put more police on the roads and make the penalties more severe. Of these, more police might be more effective. In my opinion, a criminal commits a crime because he or she assumes that they will not be caught, rather than the assumption that the punishment will be bearable. I doubt that drinkers about to drive say to themselves “Oh well, it’ll only be a year without a driving license.” The ‘Bring back flogging and hanging’ brigade get a grim pleasure from seeing ne’er-do-wells being punished. Such braying for blood is mere sadism. However, a higher probability of being arrested might have an effect.

The third consideration could be to subsidise the taxi companies in an attempt to reduce the cost of fares. If the money comes from general taxation, teetotalers and stay-at-home drinkers might balk at paying for a service that they do not use. The money could also come from a tax levied on bars. Again, customers who stroll tipsily but harmlessly back home from a pub might begrudge having to pay for others. They should console themselves with the no doubt decreased likelihood of being run over.

Is the proverbial stick preferable to the carrot? Tax payers might broadly agree to their money being spent on schemes that reward others for not commiting crimes, which they themselves never intended to commit, because the benefits outweigh the costs. But what are the consequences? Does a subsidised taxi service not encourage people to drink more? Is it not more prudent to make drinkers fully take moral, legal and financial responsibility for getting themselves home?

The Sum of Human Knowledge

On the talk page for the Wikipedia article on the Postliterate Society there is a curious form of a logical fallacy:

Literacy is a particular interest of mine, and I have never heard of this. I would recommend deletion.

This seems to be an odd way of thinking for someone helping to write an encyclopedia: I’m an expert; I’ve never heard of this; this, therefore, cannot exist.

One truth that I am continually confronted with (especially when I visit Wikipedia) is that there are more things that exist than I have heard of. This is especially true in the areas in which I consider myself an expert.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

I am reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the moment. He had a rather Spartan outlook on life (to say the least), but his thinking is attractive nonetheless. I cannot say that it will change the way that I live my life, or that I feel compelled to live like a true stoic, but it does remind me to ignore the less important ephemera.

I should admit that I have come to this book from a brief reference in “The Silence of the Lambs” and the character in the movie “Gladiator”, rather than as a result of some learned classical education. I find the character in the second movie particularly amusing.

The final line of “Gladiator” is something along the lines of “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” I guess that the slave rebellion story and the early democracy were to flatter a modern western audience: the way we live now is similar to the way it was then. Transporting modern values to a previous age in fiction is at worst dishonest propaganda and at best boring; if I wanted to know about today, I could look out of my window.

I have not found much like that in Marcus Aurelius’ writing. The opposite is to be found in fact. He repeats over and over how the events and trials of our lives are insignificant compared to the eternities before and after our lives and how everything gets washed away in the flood.

A Hollywood movie that made that the central point of the plot might be interesting, but I doubt that the hardness of the Stoic philosophy would sell as well as schmaltz and being told that our current system of government is in some way universal and eternal.