Young adult author: robots help youth think about ethics

August 11, 2014

I’d say Jack Heath is correct to say so. I’ve never heard of him but his new book Replica sounds like something I’d enjoy reading. He doesn’t just promote his book in the piece, though:

The meaningful distinctions between human and android are fading. But while science class won’t prepare us for the resulting moral questions, English class can. Particularly if students study books like Lain Tanner’s Ice Breaker, a new book about a boatload of mechanical refugees hiding from the humans who wish to wipe them out. Or Brian Falkner’s ingenious thriller Brainjack, in which a self-aware computer virus uses neuro-headsets to infect human brains.

I haven’t heard of either of those. I’m trying to think of robot related books I read in my youth but at the moment all I can think of are movies based on stories. A.I. also known as Supertoys Last all Summer Long by Brian Aldiss and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. And Kryten, from Red Dwarf. The series was eventually serialized into four books by the creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, all of which I own.

Kryten and Dave discuss Silicon Heaven: The afterlife of all electronic appliances when they die. The concept is used to keep robots, many of which are stronger and more intelligent than their masters, from rebelling. A belief chip is installed in robots to ensure that they will believe they will go to Silicon Heaven after a life of servitude to humans.

There’s some ethics right there. Is it fair to create a myth just to keep the underclass happy and accepting of their eventual fate? In this particular episode Kryten has learned that an improved android replacement is coming and he’s to be shut down. Lister helps him understand how unfair that is. Kryten succeeds in wrecking the replacement by telling it there is no silicon heaven. It’s Kryten’s first big lie as he still believes the place exists and won’t be swayed by Lister’s logic.

The next season, Lister gives Kryten some pointers on how to become a better liar and thus more like a human, something Kryten craves. There’s also an episode in the series where Kryten gets exactly what he wishes for – a human body – and has to deal with how that feels and changes who he is, and not for the better. Some of the show winds up pretty dated by this point but the writing was top notch and the topics explored by the characters could be pretty deep sometimes. I still pull out the first six in the series to watch on a regular basis.

Back to Heath:

The point of fiction is to wrap a philosophical problem in a story – to breathe life into it with quirky characters and spooky settings and, ideally, flash grenades. The point is not just to make the reader understand, but the make them feel. And just like with the robots, it’s feeling that makes you worth something.

And if you can empathize with the characters in a story and feel what they’re feeling, that same connectedness can also be applied toward real people and probably should be done more thoughtfully by everyone. Apathy may be a little easier than empathy and bullying doesn’t require the same commitments that caring does. But if you can cry because your favourite character met a bad end in the book, there’s probably hope for you.


I’m selfish and I’m a liar, but good news!

August 3, 2014

I’m being prayed for tonight.

The Man dropped the Little Man off at his mom’s on the way to work today so I took the opportunity of a Sunday to myself to go to a movie (How to Train Your Dragon 2 – very cute; I cried; not the point of the story.)

I had to walk a few blocks after the film to get to the main terminal where I’d be able to get a bus home. While I was checking the schedule for upcoming buses a guy came up to me and asked if I had 50 cents for the bus. I didn’t even look or want to look in my purse. I just said, “No, I have a bus pass,” and turned up my iPod.

I’m awful. I know. I know.

He asked everyone waiting and almost asked me again before realizing he’d already tried. He was having no luck. This went on for a few minutes. I did scope out my purse at one point and found three loonies at the bottom. He said something to me again a little while after (never heard clearly – iPod) and I confessed that I’d found a dollar at the bottom of my purse, and did some more poking around for the coin again. My efforts turned up two quarters within moments and I passed them to him.

The gratitude in the guy’s eyes.. this clearly meant a lot to him. It was kind of uncomfortable how relieved he seemed, actually. “I’ll pray for you,” he said. “I promise, I’ll pray for you tonight.” I just kind of brushed it off in a “You can if you want to, go ahead, whatever” and really felt like shoeing him away like I would a fly or pesky dog. “Okay, thank you,” I finally said, brusquely, and he hurried across the street to catch the bus that was just rolling up.

I had no qualms about ignoring a guy I saw earlier in the day asking for coins and even forgot about it until this moment but this guy..

I always kind of wonder about the begging in the city. The Galaxy Theatre where the film was playing is right by a place called the Lighthouse which houses transients and offers beds to the chronically inebriated. I seem to recall hearing they have a couple ambulances that will cruise the city and pick up people that would otherwise find themselves in the company of the police for the night. They’re doing good work, but I’m always slightly wary of walking on that side of the street. I don’t know if someone’s going to come out a door and start telling a tale of money woes that may or may not be sincere. I don’t like ignoring them but I don’t really want to be pestered to give up my coins either. Always the dilemma.

The daycare the Little Man used to attend was near the STC/Greyhound bus station and at least twice we were accosted by the same guy telling some story about needing to get out of town to see an ailing parent and needed $20 and would totally mail cash back, yadda yadda.. The night we got married, we were on the street heading for a restaurant near the Rouge Gallery where our ceremony was to socialize afterwards and our progress into the building was interrupted by a couple claiming to be off the drugs and just needing a few dollars and on and on their story went, too.

It’s probably better to just give the money to the Lighthouse, or donate stuff they’ll always need, like towels or soap and blankets. But it feels mean to walk past people like they aren’t there. Don’t they already get enough of that? Everyone needs a reminder that they matter in some way…


A Quesion of Atheist Scruples – round 8

July 3, 2012

(I missed last Tuesday on account of faulty time management. How do people busier than me keep up on their excellent blogs and still get everything accomplished?)

Same setup as other weeks. I’ll answer three Scruples questions and leave a fourth for readers. Feel free to weigh in on the others, though.

A close friend will be interviewed for a job with your employer. He asks you for a list of the questions in advance. Do you supply it?

I think most employers only interview the ones that qualify based on skills and previous experience (unless it’s seniority-based, then be ready to be passed over when someone more senior yet essentially unskilled applies for the same position). The job I have, I wouldn’t have access to a list like that anyway. All I could do is explain what kind of work it is and what there’s been for turnover. A lot of people get worried about interviews but I don’t know if prep work really can boost a person’s chances of getting the job. Confidence is one thing but overconfidence can look a bit too much like arrogance and that sort of attitude can be pretty off-putting. Don’t come across like a know-it-all and try to stay relaxed. That’s all the advice I’d be able to give. Eat a banana beforehand and smile…

You are advised to invest in a company which does well because of its monopoly but makes a poor product. You are sure to profit. Do you invest?

Sounds like Walmart. I had stock in the company while I worked there. Five years later (this year), I finally got around to telling them I’d like to sell it. I do have an RRSP plan on the go with money going toward that every month. I should be more cognizant of what my money is going toward, actually. Something to do something about down the road here. As far as the question, I think I’d pass on it.

The people who find your beloved cat injured in a ditch pay $150 for veterinary care and adopt it. You discover what happened three months later. Do you let them keep the cat?

I love cats. I grew up with transient farm cats rather than beloved pets for the most part. I’ll tell this story, though. When I was 6 or 7 I had this one called Tiger. He and I spent a lot of time together. The summer my parents invited a professional photographer to take pictures of the family in the yard, Tiger photobombed almost every sitting. Dad finally tossed the cat into the house even though he’d never before been allowed in there. For years I thought that my teasing him with a stuffed dog was the reason he buggered off but I suspect the real reason was that there weren’t any girl cats around and he had wanderlust.

If I’d found out later on that a neighbour had found him and paid for his vet visit, I might have begged Mom or Dad to have a word and see about getting him back but I think my folks would have said no. And, unless we’re talking about an expensive pedigree cat I saved up to buy and had as my companion for several years before the loss, the answer would probably still be no. By this point, the new family will have bonded with the cat and it wouldn’t feel right to barge in and ask for it back, even if I offered to pay back the money for the vet bills.

You are a politician. The people who elected you demand that you take a position on abortion which is against your personal convictions. Do you?

A Question of Atheist Scruples – round 7

June 19, 2012

I really enjoy these thought exercises. Here’s today’s selection.

Your mate has been unfaithful. Do you leave him/her?

Monogamy is a rarity in the animal world. Even in the more specific realm of primates (which we are) there are only a few species that mate that way. In the even more narrow realm of human cultural history, there are ample examples of societies that organized mating and relationships along other, equally satisfying lines. Monogamy, as practiced now, may be more a product of a culture that treated women as property (“Do you take this woman?”) and it was expected that any children produced by her would be from the seed of the man she married. Property often transferred down the father’s line of the family. That’s why adultery has been considered a sin. Temptation, too. Even the briefest thought of entertaining another person is supposedly enough to send a soul to hell.

If two people have agreed that their relationship, however long they expect to have it, will be a monogamous one, then discovering one person has strayed… well, it’s a severe breach of trust to say the least. Some reaction may have to do with how long the relationship has lasted. If it’s only been a couple weeks and the guy is already plowing another field, then I made a mistake in picking him. I’d feel like an idiot but be glad I hadn’t really gotten too serious with him. If it’s been months and I’ve really cared about that person and discover secret trysts have been going on, it’d be a lot more devastating. But, if my interest in that person has been waning as well, I think I’d use the betrayal as the open door out of what clearly isn’t a relationship to be in anymore.

If it was someone I felt like I couldn’t live without, maybe I’d put up with the nights he didn’t come home, so long as there were still some nights he did.. but I can’t actually see myself wanting to be in that situation either. If I didn’t sign up for an “open” relationship, I don’t want to find out by accident that I’ve been in one all along.

During a discussion with a seatmate on a plane, you promise to send a relevant magazine article. Do you actually do it.?

The version of game I take these questions from came from the mid 1980s before the internet made information gathering so much easier. In the days of mailing, maybe I would have taken their address and gotten around to sending it eventually, but probably not. I tend to procrastinate with that kind of thing. With email, it’s a lot easier. I probably wouldn’t even have to send the article; I could just pass along what site I found it on and he or she could get it at the airport upon landing.

A neighbour’s kid finds $30 on your driveway and gives it to you. No one claims it. Do you give the money to the kid?

I’d be totally surprised the kid gave me the money in the first place. What a morally sound kid. If I found $30 on someone’s driveway, I don’t know if I’d go to the door and deliver it. Depends on whether or not anyone saw me pick it up, I suppose. If I later heard my neighbour griping over the loss of cash, I’d probably recall what I picked up and pass it over, though. Money is one of those weird things. If I found a whole wallet with ID and cash in, I’d deliver the wallet to the authorities untouched but bills flying around apparently ownerless? I refer the courts to the case of Finders vs. Keepers… I’d let the kid keep the money.

Last question for readers.

You reserve seats at a local theatre by phone (without paying). A few hours before curtain, you decide not to go. Do you bother to cancel?

Christian “The Devil will get you!” doctor given warning

June 15, 2012

The image offered by the Telegraph makes Dr Richard Scott look a bit demonic himself, but anyway. The story is this:

The GP, who has worked as a missionary doctor in India and Tanzania, claimed that, after the usual medical consultation, he made a “gentle offer” to the patient to broach the subject of faith and was told “go for it”.

But in an 11-page finding, the GMC committee ruled that the GP had told the patient he was not going to offer him any medical help, tests or advice and stated if he did not “turn towards Jesus then he would suffer for the rest of his life”.

The committee also found that the GP had said no other religion in the world could offer him what Jesus could and he had used the phrase, or something similar to “the Devil haunts people who do not turn to Jesus and hand him their suffering”.

The General Medical Council is not against religion, they claim, but their rules clearly stipulate that doctors “must not impose your beliefs on patients, or cause distress by the inappropriate or insensitive expression of religious, political or other beliefs or views” and will take action in cases where patients say such a thing has gone on.

After the hearing, Dr Scott said he remained unbowed and the ruling would not stop him using his faith in work.
“I will continue to raise the issue of faith, in particular Christianity, where relevant in consultations in the future, because it is for the patient’s benefit.”

In his eyes, at least. I’d rather not be under a doctor who thinks it’s also his or her duty to play minister to my so-called soul. I think most patients just want to get well and will take a pill or surgery if either will get them to that goal. I know studies seem to indicate that faith and belief can assist in healing but so do placebos, pets, and compassionate caregivers. I’d take any of those over a prayer service, thank you very much, and I know I’m not the only one.

A Question of Atheist Scruples – round 6

June 12, 2012

Time for another round of Q and A:

You are a high school principal. Will you hire a gay teacher?

I will hire the most qualified applicant. If that applicant turns out to be gay, I wouldn’t see that as an issue, although maybe some parents might. Maybe my boss would, too. I’d still want to support my pick for the job, though. In this day and age, this is something that shouldn’t even be mattering anymore.

A friend has forgotten about a book he loaned you. You want the book and can’t get another copy. Do you keep it?

Maybe I’d feel tempted to remind said friend about the book but if friend hasn’t made mention of it in the weeks or months or perhaps years (it happens) then maybe the book means far less to that person and won’t care if it’s not returned. I have stuff I’d loan out and probably forget about. Other books do have more sentimental value and wouldn’t be offered up on loan, no matter how much a friend may want to read it.

You come across your mate’s personal address book. Do you glance through it?

I just did. Aside from one page, it’s blank. All that’s in it is family and likely added by his mom or sister, judging by the tidy penmanship. If I needed an address, I’d just ask him anyway. I don’t poke around on his Blackberry to see who or what he’s got listed in there, either. We don’t have many friends in common and I’m not one to pry.

Fourth for readers:

You lose an expensive gold watch and are reimbursed by your insurance company. Shortly afterward you find the watch. Do you return the money?

A Question of Atheist Scruples – round 5

June 7, 2012

Taking the leisurely route back into blogging here with another post demonstrating that at least one atheist has a decent grasp of morality and ethics. This minion doesn’t run ripshod through the world as if rules and laws didn’t exist. God might not exist, but decency does.

Preoccupied, you leave a large restaurant without paying your $3.50 bill for breakfast. You discover this three blocks later. You aren’t pressed for time. Do you return and pay?

Of course. Last time around it was 50 cents extra change that I didn’t see a point in returning. This is different to me. I’ve likely interacted more with the waitress, said yes or no to cream and sugar, or more coffee, agreed the meal was excellent (even if it wasn’t, the price makes up for it) and would feel particularly bad ditching on the bill since it’d likely mean some of her pay would have to go towards making up for it. I know most waitresses rely heavily on their tips to get anywhere, too.

You are applying for a job that requires experience you don’t have. Do you claim that you do?

I think the ruse would soon be discovered, so probably not. Instead, I’d try to convince the potential employer that I have a transferable skill set and learn quickly. I don’t tend to apply for positions I’m not qualified for.

I’m reminded of a story out of my alma mater back in 2001, now. The University of Regina wound up with egg on its face after it was discovered that they’d hired an engineering professor who’d falsified all her documentation yet wound up teaching classes there.

The University of Regina is passing its file on “Dr.” Lana Nguyen to the Regina police service, but continues to refuse to answer questions surrounding her employment and dismissal.

The police and crown prosecutors will decide if charges will be laid against the woman who defrauded the university of hundreds of thousands of dollars. University President Dr. David Barnard confirmed early this week that Nguyen resigned Feb. 13 after an annual peer review process revealed that she does not have the credentials with which she was hired.

Since her resignation, the University of Ottawa, the University of Waterloo, and the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan (APEGS) have respectively confirmed that she does not hold the bachelor’s degree, doctorate, or professional status she claimed. Her ex-husband Hien Nguyen studied and received diplomas from the two universities, and Lana Nguyen claimed his transcripts and research as her own, allegedly explaining that “Lana” was an anglicized version of “Hien.”

That takes more balls than I have, let me tell you.

A friend has sunk into a depression and behaves in an unattractive manner. Do you distance yourself until your friend gets it together?

There’s a phrase that describes that kind of behaviour: fair-weather friend. I have a pretty poor track record when it comes to friendships as it is; I don’t need to start doing that kind of thing, too. I don’t go out of my way to maintain connections with people. Even with all the ways there are to stay in contact and updated on the lives of those I know, I still don’t bother doing the clicks required to inform me of their progress through life. And I assume they’re ignoring me to equal levels as well. It’s a character flaw, I suppose. I’ll also point out that I draw a fine line between genuine care and annoying nosiness and it often feels like too many people cross it. Me, I don’t like to pry. I prefer to assume that if it’s something I need to know, that person will tell me. Back when I was in the dating realm, though, I learned there are people who assume everyone wants to play 20 Questions every time there’s an encounter. I had a fun analogy built at the time to describe both types of people but I only recall my way of interacting: a pinball approach. I like when conversations bounce from topic to topic and don’t have a set goal at the end of it…like this blog post…

Back to the question. I guess it depends on just how “together” this friend needs to get. This is all assuming I’ve even put two and two together in terms of life issues and behaviour patterns. I don’t always pick up on that kind of thing. I’ve already said I don’t pry, so if this friend hasn’t come forward to explain why he or she is having a difficult time, I don’t know if I’d think of asking for explanations.

Last one to the readers.

You discover an excellent wine imported from South Africa. You know it was likely produced by workers who are exploited and discriminated against. Do you buy the wine?