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[ # ] James Gray missing or The Answer to the Trolley Problem
March 15th, 2007 under Uncategorized

DISCLAIMER: I hope people will read this post the way it was intended. I didn’t know James Gray so I don’t have any personal attachment to him. That, however, doesn’t mean that I don’t find his disappearance tragic and hope for his safe return.

There was a lot of buzz in my myopic view of the Internet about the disappearance of James Gray:

The U.S. Coast Guard is looking for a San Francisco computer scientist who may be lost at sea after he failed to return from an outing to the Farallon Islands Sunday afternoon.

Jim Gray, 63, set out alone on his 40-foot sailboat, “Tenacious,” Sunday morning and was expected back sometime that afternoon, officials said.

For those of you that don’t know, some people regard him as the father of transaction processing and is also a Turing award winner. Needless to say, he’s influenced a lot of programmers and Computer Science as a whole. Some of the same programmers that he has directly influenced setup a Mechanical Turk on Amazon to help sort through satellite images looking for his boat. These images were obtained from a NASA ER-2 high-altitude aircraft which is a derivative of the U2 spy plane.

At around about the same time, I came along this post of missing people:

AUTHORITIES are verifying reports about the mysterious disappearance of 32 persons on Thursday afternoon in the high seas of Luuk town in Sulu.

The missing persons were onboard two motorized pump boats, one of which was identified as Sweet Rose, while the other boat was an unmarked temper type boat. The two small boats departed Pitogo at 3 p.m. of January 25 bound for the town of Tongkil, Sulu.

However, they failed to return on the same day as expected by relatives.

Immediately, it made me think, sheesh, there’s 32 people that have gone missing via the ocean versus 1 and all these people are looking for this one person. Being the amateur philosopher that I am, it made me think of the Trolley Problem:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

One of the variants of the Trolley Problem is this one:

What happens if, on one of the trolley tracks, the President of the United States has been tied by terrorists, and on the other trolley tracks, five average citizens are also tied up. As in the original Trolley Problem, who should you save?

It seems that in this case, we have the answer.

Read the Comments

[ # 35 ] Comment from Rachel [16 March, 2007, 7:54]

If that other boat of people went missing at the same time, then why didn’t they extend the search to look for them too? Or were the searches in completely different geographical locations?

This post has really got so many aspects to comment on!

For example,

the fact that the high profile cases achieve resolution so much faster than other cases (as the media has clearly shown us with regards to the Rattray case),


the philosophical debate about the runaway trolleys and if destiny should be toyed with.

However, I must admit that the largest amount of time I spent thinking about this post was dedicated to thinking about who exactly I would want to see on train tracks…

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