Monday, May 17, 2010


I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 again the other day after reading Arthur C. Clark’s novel of the same name, which was written during film production. One of the themes I got from the film and book was the nature of intelligence, sentience, and its control. Near the end of the second act, astronaut David Bowman unplugs HAL, the on-board computer that controls everything after it kills Bowman’s colleague Frank Poole. Up to this point, human crewmembers have treated HAL as a fellow with intelligence and feelings, entrusting this machine with their lives. When that trust is betrayed, and HAL understands the cost of the deed, it begs for mercy.

In both the book and the film, this monologue is really quite touching. You almost feel sorry for the computer that made the mistakes. Had this machine been human, we’d understand its error as part of our collective condition. To err is human, to forgive is divine.

But if one of our agents, a computer, shows up one of our human errors, we must reboot or unplug. We are forgivable, but the machine of our making is not. It doesn’t enjoy the same rights and privileges we do. It is not a person. (By the way, women were not considered “persons” in Canada until 1929.)

In his recent Globe and Mail essay, “One Robot, One Vote?”, Neil Reynolds, addresses the issue of robot rights. For a good chunk, he assumes that cyborgs will have genders and discusses sex, marriage and divorce. Sadly, he doesn’t entertain the notion of gender neutral robots or same-sex human-robot relations.

He does, however, bemoan the fact that “so far most of the heavy thinking about their rights, responsibilities, and morality has come from comic books.” Hmm. Yet he cites Clark and Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” neither of whom wrote comic books. (He also cites the Bible, which is now a graphic novel.) We could also look at Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek the Next Generation (“Oh, Data, you are a gem!”). Science Fiction and comic book are the playgrounds of ideas, particularly the uncomfortable ones that make lesser men and women squirm. Why not do our heavy thinking there? Where else will it be done: government?

Will robots eventually have rights? I expect so. We’ll create them in our own image. I just hope that by the time we have to put this heavy thinking into action and words, we ourselves become more humane.

Playing with the Boys

Women and girls are still getting the short end of the stick when it comes to athletics. According the the Globe and Mail only Manitoba and Ontario allow girls to compete on boys' teams. Some argue that allowing a girl to leave a girls' team diminishes that team. Hmm. In Toronto, girls' hockey teams must still struggle to get prime ice time over the "traditional" boys' teams. (Women have been playing hockey for more than a century, so it seems there's another tradition at play, but I digress.) So if they aren't allowed to play, they aren't allowed to flourish. If they can't flourish, they can't make a living out of it. Take a look at the Olympic Gold-medal winning women's team; most them play on men's teams. Yes, women's and girls' teams can only improve when the skills improve. And their skills can only improve when they get to play more often at higher levels that are often denied to girls' and women's leagues.

What year is this again?

Saturday, May 08, 2010


According to the Toronto Star and Toronto Life, the economic committee of the city of Toronto voted five to one in favour of allowing retailers to open on Christmas Day. Councillor Kyle Rae says that, “On Christmas Day, I spend my time in a movie theatre. It’s a great time… Family isn’t always a good thing.” (By the way, the councillor for Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale isn’t running again. Funny, that.)
This idea is wrong on so many levels, but I’ll attempt to list them.
  • It businesses cost money to stay open and pay their staff stat holiday pay, which is taxable.

  • Businesses are unlikely to hire new staff to work stat holidays, which would incur more employment taxes.

  • Current staff would be “strongly encouraged” to work Christmas.

  • If they protest, then they “aren’t a team player,” “person X has kids,” “you’re single, so you don’t what else are you going to do,” “you’re not religious, are you?”

  • Sunday shopping was supposed to take up the slack and offer jobs to the unemployed. Didn’t work out that way.

  • People for whom part-time retail is one of a number of jobs they have to make ends meet deserve at least one day off a year to rest. It has nothing to do with religion.

  • Having one day off a year that doesn’t entail shopping does in fact make us civilized. Consumption and gluttony are not hallmarks of sophistication.

  • In Ontario, the Liberals enacted “Family Day” as a day in bleak February for people to be with their kin. (I think it was more a cynical election ploy, but I digress.) Great! Wonderful! So now we’re being greedy in wanting to keep Christmas Day(or to be secular about it, December 25) a day off to be with our families?

  • If we’re like Rae and dislike our families, we can take the day off and be with friends, or volunteer at shelter, or simply rest. Not work. Not produce. Not consume.

    • Remember that this does not apply to banks, government, offices, and other white-collar middle-class employers. This is largely non-unionized service: restaurants, cafes, shops, bars, and so on.

    I’m sure there are many more arguments to be made.