Tag Archives: Chaos Theory

From The Ethics Alarms Moral Luck And Butterfly Effect Files: Geoffrey Tandy And The False But Fun Story Of How An Ignorant Typo Won World War II

Some pretty cryptogams…

Bear with me: This is a fascinating story, but not exactly the story I thought it was.

Yesterday my wife and I watched an episode of the Travel Channel’s Mysteries of the Museum, a historical oddities and trivia show that explores the stories behind museum exhibits around the world. Grace is a student of World War II history and is especially interested in the work at Bletchley Park, where the top secret work on breaking German codes went on, including the exploits of Alan Turing, the eccentric genius who broke the Enigma Code and managed to invent the computer in the process. The episode was advertised as the amazing and little-known tale of how a typographical error won World War II.

The story: Geoffrey Tandy was the British Museum’s “seaweed man,” and a certifiable eccentric. For one thing, he was a bigamist, heading two families that were not aware of each other.  Tandy was also pals with poet T.S. Elliot, and more fond of writing esoterica than scholarly papers. Some typist somewhere along the line in his personnel paper work had misconstrued Tandy’s area of expertise, which was cryptogams,  primitive seedless plants such as algae and lichens, as cryptograms, which are ciphers and codes. Thus papers circulated the wartime bureaucracy stating the marine biologist was really an ace code breaker. This got the puzzled algae specialist mistakenly assigned to Bletchley, where he was a fish out of water, or a lichen out of his element, or something. The real code-breakers quickly figured out that Tandy was useless, but since nobody was supposed to know what was going on in the old building, he was stuck. Tandy spent two years filing papers and making tea.

Then, just like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, unforeseen events conspired to make his special abilities crucial. Several sodden notebooks holding vital clues, including Bigram Tables, to the mysteries of the German Enigma code were recovered from a sunken U-boat.  Unfortunately but understandably, they were soaked through with sea water, and apparently damaged beyond repairing. Tandy, however, knew an old cryptogam trick he had used to preserve tiny marine algae! Obtaining special absorbent papers from the museum, Tandy was able to carefully blot and dry the sodden pages, making them readable. As hoped, they yielded the crucial missing information Turing needed to break Enigma, acknowledged by all as a turning point in the war, as well as a Turing point. Continue reading

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Filed under Around the World, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, History, Journalism & Media, language, Social Media, War and the Military

The Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide, Updated And With A New Introduction For 2018

Once again I am posting the Ethics Alarms Ethics Guide to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece “It’s A Wonderful Life,” perhaps the greatest ethics movies of all time, as this blog’s official welcome to the holiday season. The film is commonly thought of as a Christmas movie, but it really is a Thanksgiving story. Unfortunately, the movie is so well known, so much imitated, so familiar in its tropes and cliches that we really don’t think about it very hard. We should.

The movie is exactly the kind of important shared cultural touch-point that I am advocating when I emphasize the importance of cultural literacy to our nation’s connective tissue. The film teaches about values, family, sacrifice and human failings unlike any other: its power and uniqueness disproves the assertion, made in one online debate here this year, that new cultural creations inevitably and effectively supersede older ones. No, they really don’t, and like copies of copies, eventually the cultural values conveyed get fainter and less influential. “It’s A Wonderful Life” would be an excellent basis for a middle school ethics course. I haven’t seen a better, richer film for that purpose come along since, and I’ve been looking.

I am also constantly amazed at how many people haven’t seen the movie. My son’s girlfriend admitted that she hadn’t at dinner today. A few months ago I gave a DVD to a pharmacist at our local CVS after I made a reference to the film and he had no idea what I was talking about. He said he would wait until the holidays to watch it with his family. I hope he does: he left the job soon after. There are some classic movies that parents have an obligation to make sure their children see. This is one. Despite the many ethics complexities and nuances that the film glosses over or distorts, its basic, core message is crucial to all human beings, and needs to be hammered into our skulls at regular intervals, far more often than once a year.

What I wrote about this message in an earlier posting of this opus still seems right to me:

Everyone’s life does touch many others, and everyone has played a part in the chaotic ordering of random occurrences for good. Think about the children who have been born because you somehow were involved in the chain of events that linked their parents. And if you can’t think of something in your life that has a positive impact on someone–although there has to have been one, and probably many—then do something now. It doesn’t take much; sometimes a smile and a kind word is enough. Remembering the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” really can make life more wonderful, and not just for you.

I wondered about posting the guide again this year, as this feels like a year in which Ethics Alarms lost old readers rather than gained new ones. Then I read it again, and it reminded me of some important things I had forgotten, and I wrote it. I also, as is my yearly habit, edited and added to the commentary a bit. I’m smarter this year than I was last year, and I bet you are too…especially if you’ve been reading Ethics Alarms, just from figuring out how I’m wrong.

I hope you all had a terrific Thanksgiving, and that the holiday season is joyous for all.

And here we go:

1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”

The movie begins in heaven, represented by twinkling stars. There is no way around this, as divine intervention is at the core of the fantasy. Heaven and angels were big in Hollywood in the Forties. The framing of the tale seems to advance the anti-ethical idea, central to many religions, that good behavior on earth will be rewarded in the hereafter, bolstering the theory that without God and eternal rewards, doing good is pointless.

Yet in the end, it is an ethics movie, not a religious one. George lives a (mostly) ethical life, not out of any religious conviction, but because step by step, crisis after crisis, he chooses to place the welfare of others, especially his community and family, above his own needs and desires. No reward is promised to him, and he momentarily forgets why we act ethically, until he is reminded. Living ethically is its own reward.

We are introduced to George Bailey, who, we are told, is in trouble and has prayed for help. One has to wonder about people like George, who resort to prayer as a last resort, but they don’t seem to hold it against him in Heaven. The heavenly authorities assign an Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Oddbody, to handle the case..He is, we learn later, something of a second rate angel as well as a 2nd Class one, so it is interesting that whether or not George is in fact saved will be entrusted to less than Heaven’s best. Some lack of commitment, there— perhaps because George has not been “a praying man.” This will teach him—sub-par service! Good luck, George!

2. Extra Credit for Moral Luck

George’s first ethical act is saving his brother, Harry, from drowning, an early exhibition of courage, caring and sacrifice. The sacrifice part is that the childhood episode costs George the hearing in one ear. He doesn’t really deserve extra credit for this, as it was not a conscious trade of his hearing for Harry’s young life, but he gets it anyway, just as soldiers who are wounded in battle receive more admiration and accolades than those who are not. Yet this is only moral luck. A wounded hero is no more heroic than a unwounded one, and may be less competent as well as less lucky. (This is not an observation that one should make in public, as President Trump learned when he made a lifetime enemy of John McCain.)

3.  The Confusing Drug Store Incident.

George Bailey’s next ethical act is when he saves the life of another child by not delivering a bottle of pills that had been inadvertently poisoned by his boss, the druggist, Mr. Gower, who is addled by grief and drink after learning about the death of his own son. George’s act is nothing to get too excited over, really—if George had knowingly delivered poisoned pills, he would have been more guilty than the druggist, who was only careless. What do we call someone who intentionally delivers poison that he knows will be mistaken for medication? A murderer, that’s what.  We’re supposed to admire George for not committing murder.

Mr. Gower, at worst, would be guilty of negligent homicide. George saves him from that fate when he saves the child, but if he really wanted to show exemplary ethics, he should have reported the incident to authorities. Mr. Gower is not a trustworthy pharmacist—he was also the beneficiary of moral luck. He poisoned a child’s pills through inattentiveness. If his customers knew that, would they keep getting their drugs from him? Should they? A professional whose errors are potentially deadly must not dare the fates by working when his or her faculties are impaired by illness, sleeplessness or, in Gower’s case, grief and alcohol.

One could take the position that Mr. Gower “just made one mistake.” But trustworthy professionals don’t get to make such mistakes, not and still be trusted the next time. Trust is easily destroyed, and should be.

Mr. Gower also slaps George on the head several times. Today hitting a child like that is regarded as child abuse by a parent; when another adult hits a child, it’s grounds for arrest. This is one of many examples of evolving societal ethics in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” When the film was made, Mr. Gower’s conduct in beating a child employee was considered forgivable. If the local pharmacist slapped my son, I’d swear out a criminal complaint, and he still might end up shambling bum like Mr. Gower in the film’s alternate reality section.

4. The Uncle Billy Problem.

As George grows up, we see that he is loyal and respectful to his father. That’s admirable. What is not admirable is that George’s father, who has fiduciary duties as the head of a Building and Loan, has placed his brother Billy in a position of responsibility. As we soon learn, Billy is a souse, a fool and an incompetent. This is a breach of fiscal and business ethics by the elder Bailey as well a classic conflict of interest, both of which George engages in as well, to his eventual sorrow.

5. George’s Speech.

Continue reading

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My Confession, Just In Case The FBI Investigates…

The scene of the crime…

In an earlier post about the Kavanaugh debacle, I introduced a poll with this:

Memory I: As a junior, I engineered an elaborate prank to steal a sofa from two classmates and friends who had swiped a sofa from two other students in their dorm. It almost worked, too: the pay-off was going to be when they visited our suite and saw their sofa there. The plan fell apart, and the original owners even got their sofa back.

Question: Should this episode, which technically involved attempted theft, disqualify me for some positions as an adult and professional?

The polls results:

Several commenters have admitted that their votes were tongue in cheek, so I don’t believe for a minute that there were really 13% of voters who believe that the episode when I was 20 should bar me from being an ethicist, a lawyer, or a SCOTUS judge, and needed to be investigated by the FBI. Just in case, however, I feel I should tell the whole, sordid story about what came to be called “The Great Sofa Caper,” and which is a tale told and retold at every reunion of my room mates.

It was the end of winter, and spring cleaning of sorts at the Harvard dorms. I lived in a suite at Lowell House with five other juniors, and was visiting friends and fellow classmates “Oscar” and “Felix” across the campus in the high rise dorms, Leverett Towers. “Oscar” was a theater friend who looked like a dissipated cross between Omar Shariff and Teddy Roosevelt; “Felix” looked like a pint-size Rodney Dangerfield. Shortly after I entered their abode, Felix said, “Hey, what do you think about the new sofa we swiped?” Indeed, prominently displayed in the main room was what appeared to be a very new, very nice, fully upholstered  sofa.

“You swiped it?” I said, and Felix laughed. “No, I was just kidding. Some upperclassmen were changing rooms, and this was left out in the hall for anyone to take. Nice, eh?”

“You swiped it! That’s brand new! Nobody would throw that out. Come on!” I said. Indeed, furniture and other junk was often being left out for communal expropriating in such moves, but this seemed like wilful, contrived ignorance by my friends to me. Nonetheless, Felix and Oscar swore that they would never steal anything, and that the brand new sofa was abandoned property.

Right.

I went back to Lowell House deep in thought and ethics conflict, wondering what the right thing to do was. I couldn’t report my friends for what was, even if it was theft in the real world, pretty standard college silliness. Still, I felt this was excessive. Then I hit on my plan. It would be both a good practical joke and a lesson for Felix and Oscar. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Daily Life, Education, Humor and Satire

Oh-Oh… I May Be Mellowing: I’m Not As Keen On The Felony Murder Rule As I Once Was

The New York Times recently had a story about the latest state, California, considering abolishing the felony murder rule, the tough American principle that if you participate in a felony and someone is killed, you can be tried for first degree murder even if you didn’t directly cause the death. Writing about the rule in 2014 as it  applied in a particularly odd case, I wrote,

I sort of like it, and always have. Like all laws, however, it doesn’t work perfectly all the time.

The reason I like the rule is that it acknowledges the real danger of initiating felonies, crimes that are serious and destructive. If you burn a business down to collect the insurance, for example, you should be held responsible by the law if the fire gets out of control and someone is killed. The law combines criminal and civil offenses; the felony murder rule is like a negligent crime principle. It is a law that implicitly understands Chaos Theory at a basic level: actions often have unpredictable consequences, and even if the consequences are worse than you expected or could have expected, you still are accountable for putting dangerous and perhaps deadly forces in motion. If you commit a felony, you better make damn sure you know what you are doing, because if people get killed,  you will be held to a doubly harsh standard. Better yet, don’t commit the crime.

Don’t commit the crime. I have this reaction to all complaints about harsh sentences when the individual complaining (or having an advocate complain on his behalf) is guilty of the crime involved…You knew the risk, and you get no sympathy from me. The same applies to felony murder. The felon rolled the dice, and lost. (Somebody else lost too: the victim who was killed.) Nobody made him (or her) roll.

The potential California reform would change state law so that only someone who actually killed, intended to kill or acted as a major player with “reckless indifference to human life” could face murder charges. That would avoid seemingly harsh sentences in cases like the one the Time story focuses on, in which Shawn Khalifa, 15 at the times, served as a look-out while some teenage friends broke into an elderly neighbor’s house in the  California town of Perris, looking for cash. The elderly homeowner was injured in the burglary and eventually died.  A jury convicted the teenager of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule, and he is serving a sentence of 25 years to life. I am tempted to support the California  measure, which would avoid Khalifa’s kind of sentence while keeping the possibility of a felony murder charge when the culpability is more than just moral luck. Continue reading

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Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Law & Law Enforcement

Comment Of The Day: “The Wake-Up Call And The Power Cord”

Nemisis pursues an arrogant mortal…

Here is slickwilly’s reflection on the breakdown of systems, human error, hubris and nemisis in his Comment of the Day on the post,The Wake-Up Call And The Power Cord:

The O ring failure had a great impact on young slickwilly, who was home on a rare sick day and watched the shuttle blow up live. The information that later came out made it clear that launching spaceships was fraught with danger, as there were so many things that could go wrong in such a complex system it was a wonder they ALL did not blow up.

My first and only brush with ethics (engineering: make sure the bridge does not fall down) was greatly reinforced by memories of that Shuttle disaster. (I still get chills when I think of the radio message “Roger, go with throttle up” which preceded that explosion.

The definition of hubris is “excessive pride or self-confidence” and comes from Greek Tragedy’s  “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to Nemesis.” (NOTE: Nemisis was the vengeful Greek god who destroyed mortals guilty of hubris.)

Hubris caused the Shuttle tragedy. NASA (and their contractors) became complacent, and allowed less important considerations (like flight schedules, politics, and mission timelines) overcome important items like launch protocols and safety. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Comment of the Day, Government & Politics, History, Science & Technology, U.S. Society, Workplace

The Wake-Up Call And The Power Cord

As you may have noticed, your host has been involuntarily separated from Ethics Alarms for about 24 hours. Several things occurred that under normal circumstances would have had me dashing off a post while waiting for flights or preparing to check out of my hotel—and there were definitely several comments that had me reaching for a phantom keyboard—but I was without laptop, thanks to leaving the power cord behind in my previous hotel.

So I have a little story to tell. I stayed at a decent Boston hotel last night, not a 4 star hotel like the one I just left  in Atlanta (The Four Seasons), but a nice one, professionally run, dependable. Yet this morning this was my wake-up call, via recording:

“It’s 7 AM. This is your wake-up call for March 8, 2018.”

Almost at the same time, David Hogg was on CNN, explaining how darned easy it was to create a system that would prevent school shootings forevermore.

Wrong. Systems break down, you experience-free, arrogant, disrespectful, know-nothing puppet.  The belief that human beings can devise systems that will solve every problem, or any problem, and do what they are designed to do without failing miserably at the worst possible times and in the worst imaginable ways is signature significance for a fool, or a child. O-Rings fail. Police don’t act on warnings that a kid is violent. Obamacare raises health care premiums.  Political parties end up nominating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Jack Ruby breaks past police security. Communism ends up killing hundreds of millions rather than creating a worker paradise. The Titanic hits the wrong iceberg exactly where it’s weakest. Hitler takes a sleeping pill during the Normandy invasion.

The T-Rex gets loose. Continue reading

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It’s Thanksgiving, And Time For The Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide [Updated And With A New Introduction For 2017 ]

 

Last year (to the day) when I posted the Ethics Alarms ethics guide to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece “It’s A Wonderful Life,” one of the great ethics movies of all time, as this blog’s official welcome to the holiday season, I wrote, “I suspect we need it more in 2016 than usual.”  As it turned out, we need it even more in 2017.

Multiple forces have been hard at work for a full year now, roiling the nation, painting the future as dire and the present as unbearable, trying to divide us and even to encourage discord and conflict during this special time when we are supposed to remember what is most important in life. In case you have been infected, it’s not politics and not partisan agendas, but love, family, community, kindness, and friends. The simple message of Frank Capra’s masterpiece—it has aged far better than his other films, including, and maybe especially, “Mister Smith Goes To Washington”—that no one is a failure who has friends, is vital to recall when so many are rejecting friends because they don’t conform to some ideological talking point. This is madness, and watching and heeding “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a better remedy than Thorazine.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer actually told his Twitter followers this week to bring a chart prepared by a  think tank to attack the Republican tax plan during Thanksgiving dinner. This is part of the effort to politicize everything in our lives, by zealots who value power over humanity, country, and spirituality. They belong with Mr. Potter, not George and Clarence.

I need this movie more in 2017 than usual for other reasons. It has been a year in which I have lost many peers and cherished friends, and listened to too many of the living bemoan the passage of time and looming mortality.  I don’t think like that—a lifetime gift from my brave and fatalist father—but I can’t pretend that the game clock isn’t running out, or not face the fact that I have not sunk anywhere near the baskets I could have and should have. Fortunately, what I wrote in an earlier year introducing this post still resonates…

Everyone’s life does touch many others, and everyone has played a part in the chaotic ordering of random occurrences for good. Think about the children who have been born because you somehow were involved in the chain of events that linked their parents. And if you can’t think of something in your life that has a positive impact on someone–although there has to have been one, and probably many—then do something now. It doesn’t take much; sometimes a smile and a kind word is enough. Remembering the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” really can make life more wonderful, and not just for you.

Have a terrific Thanksgiving, everyone.

And here we go:

1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”

The movie begins in heaven, represented by twinkling stars. There is no way around this, as divine intervention is at the core of the fantasy. Heaven and angels were big in Hollywood in the Forties. The framing of the tale seems to advance the anti-ethical idea, central to many religions, that good behavior on earth will be rewarded in the hereafter, bolstering the theory that without God and eternal rewards, doing good is pointless.

Yet in the end, it is an ethics movie, not a religious one. George lives an ethical live, not out of any religious conviction, but because step by step, crisis after crisis, he chooses to place the welfare of others, especially his community and family, above his own needs and desires. No reward is promised to him, and he momentarily forgets why we act ethically, until he is reminded. Living ethically is its own reward.

We are introduced to George Bailey, who, we are told, is in trouble and has prayed for help. One has to wonder about people like George, who resort to prayer as a last resort, but they don’t seem to hold it against him in Heaven. The heavenly authorities assign an Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Oddbody, to handle the case..He is, we learn later, something of a second rate angel as well as a 2nd Class one, so it is interesting that whether or not George is in fact saved will be entrusted to less than Heaven’s best. Some lack of commitment, there— perhaps because George has not been “a praying man.” This will teach him—sub-par service!

2. Extra Credit for Moral Luck

George’s first ethical act is saving his brother, Harry, from drowning, an early exhibition of courage, caring and sacrifice. The sacrifice part is that the childhood episode costs George the hearing in one ear. He doesn’t really deserve extra credit for this, as it was not a conscious trade of his hearing for Harry’s young life, but he gets it anyway, just as soldiers who are wounded in battle receive more admiration and accolades than those who are not. Yet this is only moral luck. A wounded hero is no more heroic than a unwounded one, and may be less competent as well as less lucky.

3.  The Confusing Drug Store Incident

George Bailey’s next ethical act is when he saves the life of another child by not delivering a bottle of pills that had been inadvertently poisoned by his boss, the druggist, Mr. Gower. This is nothing to get too excited over, really—if George had knowingly delivered poisoned pills, he would have been more guilty than the druggist, who was only careless. What do we call someone who intentionally delivers poison that he knows will be mistaken for medication? A murderer, that’s what.  We’re supposed to admire George for not committing murder.

Mr. Gower, at worst, would be guilty of negligent homicide. George saves him from that fate when he saves the child, but if he really wanted to show exemplary ethics, he should have reported the incident to authorities. Mr. Gower is not a trustworthy pharmacist—he was also the beneficiary of moral luck. He poisoned a child’s pills through inattentiveness. If his customers knew that, would they keep getting their drugs from him? Should they? A professional whose errors are potentially deadly must not dare the fates by working when his or her faculties are impaired by illness, sleeplessness or, in Gower’s case, grief and alcohol.

4. The Uncle Billy Problem

As George grows up, we see that he is loyal and respectful to his father. That’s admirable. What is not admirable is that George’s father, who has fiduciary duties as the head of a Building and Loan, has placed his brother Billy in a position of responsibility. As we soon learn, Billy is a souse, a fool and an incompetent. This is a breach of fiscal and business ethics by the elder Bailey, and one that George engages in as well, to his eventual sorrow.

5. George’s Speech

Continue reading

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