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Joan and I bought a new car recently. It almost makes me obsolete. It will brake if there’s something in front. It will brake if there’s something behind. It will slow down when the car in front slows down. It will stay in its own lane. It will warn me if I’m not paying enough attention.
All these programs run on what’s called an algorithm. Basically, that’s a computer program, a step by step set of coded instructions that’s supposed to take into account all possible circumstances.
An algorithm has no ethical principles. It is utterly amoral. It just does what it’s told to do.
I wonder what it would do with the classic question posed by ethicists. There’s a beautiful maiden strapped to the railway tracks. And a runaway train coming. You can’t stop the train. But you could throw a switch and divert the train onto a different track, where it will wipe out a work crew.
Categories: Soft Edges
Tags: ethics, algorithms, cars
As Easter nears, I think about two men – one who died, and one who didn’t. Jesus died; Barabbas didn’t. Or maybe it’s the other way around, in the long term.
By a cruel irony, when governor Pontius Pilate offers to free Jesus as a goodwill gesture for the Jewish Passover, an angry crowd demands that he release, instead, a thief and murderer named “Barabbas.” Barabbas -- “the son of the father”.
And so the man who said “The Father and I are one” was executed on a trumped-up charge of claiming to be King of the Jews, while the man named “Son of the Father” was set free.
The coincidence is so keen, it almost demands further exploration.
Tags: resurrection, Jesus, Barabbas, Pilate, crucifixion
“What kind of work do you do?” the surgeon asked, tilting back in his chair. The two of us were having a get-acquainted interview.
“I edit books,” I told him.
“What kind of books?”
“Religious books, mostly.”
He leaned forward, suddenly intent. “And what’s religion going to do when medicine delivers immortality, instead of religion?” he demanded.
I tried to explain that religion wasn’t just about earning eternal life. And it isn’t, though many people do look forward to living forever in heaven. (No one looks forward to living forever in hell.)
I don’t think I convinced him.
Tags: Hell, heaven, immortality, eternal life, medicine
In our social culture, we tend to use our eyes differently, depending on whether we’re speaking or listening. (Other cultures have different, and therefore often disquieting, customs.)
I tend to watch someone else most closely while they’re speaking. That’s how I show I’m paying attention. I watch your eyes, your mouth, the crinkles on your forehead, to confirm visually what I think my ears are hearing. If I start looking somewhere else – at the TV set, for instance, at the dog, or, umm, at your cleavage – you can reasonably assume that I’m no longer paying as much attention as I should.
But when I’m speaking, I’m more likely to glance away occasionally.
Tags: communication, Eyes, teleprompters
Composer Johannes Brahms had an inferiority complex, Tom Allan explained on CBC Radio one afternoon. Apparently Brahms idolized Beethoven. Beethoven set music on a new course; Brahms felt that his best efforts could never measure up to Beethoven’s standard.
Of course, Beethoven may have felt the same about Mozart, the genius who preceded him. And perhaps Mozart drew inspiration from Bach. And Bach -- who knows? Perhaps Vivaldi or Telemann. And they in turn looked back to Corelli or Buxtehude…
But none of them gave up composing music because they feared they couldn’t compare with their predecessors.
The same holds true in every human endeavour I can think of -- with one exception: religion.
Tags: Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Einstein, Newton, Bohr, Curie, Planck, Shakespeare, Milton
Towards the end of the cross-country ski season, a friend mused, “Does snow feel pain when I jab it with my ski pole?”
We all laughed.
“Why not?” she persisted. “Aren’t we all made of the same stardust? Everything in the universe came from the Big Bang. Whether it’s snow or trees or me, we all consist of the matter that was created 14 billion years ago. So why should I assume that I’m the only one who feels pain when I get jabbed with something sharp?”
A physicist will tell you that all matter is made up of particles. For convenience, we call them electrons and protons. But there are no exclusively human electrons and protons; no uniquely human quarks or gluons. At the sub-atomic level, water is made of exactly the same stuff as humans.
So why can’t water feel pain?
Tags: life, Snow, water, pain
The Christian churches in this part of the world are now one week into the season of Lent, starting on Ash Wednesday, March 1.
Few people pay attention to Lent anymore, it seems. Except that candy-makers start selling Easter eggs in supermarkets.
It wasn’t always so. When I was younger, churches taught us to give up something for the seven weeks leading to Easter. Like smoking, for example. Easy for me, because I didn’t smoke. Giving up chocolate would have been harder.
In my first fulltime job, the boss hired a stunning secretary. One March morning a rather ordinary looking woman replaced her.
“Who’s the new secretary?” I asked another staffer, cluelessly.
“Same one,” he said. “She’s just given up makeup for Lent.”
Tags: Carnaval. Mardi Gras, Pancake Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Lent
No doubt you’ve heard that Douglas Garland was convicted of kidnapping, torturing, dismembering, and burning the bodies of five-year-old Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents Alvin and Kathy Liknes.
Garland, 57 years old, was sentenced to three consecutive 25-year terms of life imprisonment. Seventy-five years might seem sufficient punishment, but Nathan’s father wanted more – eternal punishment.
At the sentencing hearing, Rod O’Brien addressed Garland directly: “For those who choose evil, they will get an eternity of evil. A life sentence on earth is nothing compared to what waits for you.”
Having lost a son myself, many years ago, I can sympathize with the intensity of O’Brien’s grief. I hope his belief in hell – and in heaven for Nathan -- gives him comfort. It wouldn’t, for me.
Because I don’t believe in hell.
Tags: Hell, heaven, judgement
Stuart McLean was a national treasure. I’ve heard him called Canada’s Garrison Keillor. Maybe he was also Canada’s Mark Twain. He told the stories of our people, our land, our whatever-we-are, with wit, gentle humour, and insight.
Like a limited number of other writers – Elizabeth Goudge and Dorothy Gilman come to mind – McLean didn’t need to create villains. He recognized that conflict isn’t necessarily between good and evil, but simply between differing personalities. Between Dave’s good-hearted attempts to be helpful, and Mary Turlington’s obsession with getting things just right. Between Morley, whose Christmases always seemed to get away from her somehow, and Polly Anderson’s perfect parties.
But they were kindly differences. There was no malice in any of his characters. Not even in Murphy, the boy who kept enticing young Sam into risky adventures.
Tags: Stuart McLean, storytelling
Why would most of us rather attend a live concert than listen to a recording – even though the recording may be technically superior? Why do we go to hockey games, when we can see the puck better on TV?
A deaf percussionist offers some answers.
Dame Evelyn Glennie can hear next to nothing through her ears. But when she performs with an orchestra, she has to know when the trombones blare, when the violins sing. She says that she feels the vibrations. Through her bare feet. Through her skin. Through her internal organs. Different parts of her body resonate to different frequencies.
"The whole body's like a huge ear," Glennie says. "It's as simple as that."
Tags: listening, Evelyn Glennie, hearing, deaf