The philosophy of Thomas the Tank Engine

My toddler loves to watch the television show Thomas and Friends based on the The Railway Series books by the Rev. Wilbert Audry. The show tells the story of sentient trains on a mythical island off the British coast called Sodor. Each episode is a morality play where one of the trains causes some problem because of a character flaw like arrogance or vanity that eventually comes to the attention of the avuncular head of the railroad, Sr. Topham Hatt (called The Fat Controller in the UK). He mildly chastises the train, who becomes aware of his foolishness (it’s almost always a he) and remedies the situation.

While I think the show has some educational value for small children, it also brings up some interesting ethical and metaphysical questions that could be very relevant for our near future. For one, although the trains are sentient and seem to have full control over their actions, some of them also have human drivers. What are these drivers doing? Are they simply observers or are they complicit in the ill-judged actions of the trains? Should they be held responsible for the mistakes of the train? Who has true control, the driver or the train? Can one over-ride the other? These questions will be on everyone’s minds when the first self-driving cars hit the mass market in a few years.

An even more relevant ethical dilemma regards the place the trains have in society. Are they employees or indentured servants of the railroad company? Are they free to leave the railroad if they want? Do they own possessions? When the trains break down they are taken to the steam works, which is run by a train named Victor. However, humans effect the repairs. Do they take orders from Victor? Presumably, the humans get paid and are free to change jobs so is this a situation where free beings are supervised by slaves?

The highest praise a train can receive from Sir Topham Hatt is that he or she was “very useful.” This is not something one would say to a human employee in a modern corporation. You might say you were very helpful or that your action was very useful but it sounds dehumanizing to say “you are useful.” Thus, Sir Topham Hatt at least, does not seem to consider the trains to be humans. Perhaps, he considers them to be more like domesticated animals. However, these are animals that clearly have aspirations, goals, and feelings of self-worth. It seems to me that they should be afforded the full rights of any other citizen of Sodor. As machines become more and more integrated into our lives, it may well be useful to probe the philosophical quandaries of Thomas and Friends.





R vs Matlab

It has now been almost half a year since I switched from Matlab to open source software and I’ve been amazed at how easy the transition has been. I had planned to replace Matlab with Python, Julia, and R but I have found that R and Julia have been sufficient for my requirements. Maxima is also more than adequate to replace Mathematica. I have become particularly attached to R especially after I started to use R Studio as the interface. I had only used R before as just a statistics tool but it really is a complete programming platform like Matlab. It has very nice graphics capabilities and I find the language very nice to program in. I really like its use of lists where I can pile sets of any type and any size into one object. I also like how R Studio can save your work into Projects, which keeps the whole environment and history in one place. I can then switch between multiple projects and everything comes back. The only thing I miss from Matlab is the command completion history feature, where I could easily find a previous command by just typing the first few letters. Also, I haven’t quite figured out how to output R data into a text file seamlessly yet. I seem to always get extraneous row or column information. I use Julia when I want to write a code that needs to loop fast but for everything else I’ve been reaching for R.