Archive for January, 2016



I’ve been listening to a new podcast lately – “Talk Nerdy”, by Cara Santa Maria.

CaraSantaMariaIt’s awesome – a delightfully personal approach to various science-based topics – news,issues, whatever. I will have more to say about this podcast and particular episodes in the future, but for now I just wanted to share the latest thing from it.

In this week’s episode, Cara talks to Kevin Roose about a project they have both worked on – a new series of mini-documentaries called “Real Future“. (Follow that link – you can watch the episodes free online!) As I write this, three episodes are available, each between ten and thirteen minutes long. The general idea of the show is to present technology in society, and how the current state of things points us to a future few of us may expect to live in. What do these new technologies mean for how we will need to structure our relationships, our society, and our laws? What can they mean for real people?

In the first episode, Kevin Roose visits the operator of a website that hosts (among other things) revenge porn. And even though I had listened to the podcast and heard the surprise ending to that documentary, I found myself drawn into the story and … well, I really don’t want to give away the ending. I think it’ll be worth thirteen minutes of your time to check it out! The personal story is intriguing, and the perspective on our current technological culture is thought-provoking.

In the second episode, another host (Alexis Madrigal) follows a drone pilot as she tries to make her mark on this new sport at the first ever National Drone Championships in the US. I half-expected the sort of breathless, unengaging reporting you get from motorsports commentators. Instead, Madrigal manages to connect with the pilot and uncover a personal side to this sport that I would never have expected. It was alarmingly moving.

The third episode is hosted by Cara Santa Maria, and takes a look at Vocaloids, popular singers big on the Japanese music scene right now which are entirely digital creations – in some cases created by corporate music operations, and in some cases by anime enthusiasts. We see the phenomenon – which some people are aiming to import to America – from the fans’ perspective, from the perspective of a Vocaloid creator, and from the perspective of an outsider (Cara herself). A curious intersection of different attitudes to a new technology.

All three episodes are remarkable in their professional and unexpectedly cinematic visuals. In a very short time, they each weave a narrative that engages you and provokes you to think. As someone already short on time, but always keen to have more to think about, it is the perfect format for me. And they’ve hit the sweet spot for subject matter and tone too – technology, with the social perspective.

I can’t wait for the next episode to come out. I don’t care what it’s about – I already know it’s going to be awesome.


Truth is stranger than fiction


Of course it’s stranger. What else would you expect?

I mean, truth comes from out there – the world outside our heads. Fiction comes from human minds. Naturally fiction will seem more comfortable and familiar to those minds, and truth will sometimes seem alien and strange.

That is all.

Love and machines


I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.


Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?

What deserves to be called “god”?


You know what I hate? I hate when I start preparing an argument, and my research tells me that my own favoured position is the unsupportable one.

I recently listened to an interview on Tapestry with Nancy Ellen Abrams, an atheist who has written a book called A God that Could be Real.


Essentially, Abrams was an atheist in a twelve-step program. Many of the steps refer to a higher power. She wanted to work through the steps honestly, without compromising her integrity by pretending to have a belief she didn’t have.

In encourage you to listen to the interview – it’s just short of a half-hour long, and contains much more than what I’ll summarize here in my response to it. Go ahead – this post isn’t going anywhere.

Okay, now that you’re back, what do you think?

In a nutshell, Abrams sat down and tried to think of what could actually exist that might deserve to be called “God”, and she came out with something that, to me, does not sound supernatural or theistic in any conventional sense. An emergent “aggregate of human aspirations” thing.

Now, I would be inclined to say that this is not a god. It checks none of the boxes I have for what makes something a god. All-powerful? Nope. All-knowing? Nope. Perfectly good? A person? Nope and nope. So why would Abrams call it “God”?

Well, remember that this non-theistic god she envisioned allowed her to pursue the recovery she sought. It filled the role that a more conventional god fills for many others following a twelve-step program. So, at least for herself, Abrams has a good reason to treat this concept she arrived at as “god”, for the purposes of her recovery. Fine.

But should anyone else take on her definition?

This is an instance of a theme we come across perennially in atheist circles. Someone proposes “why don’t we call X ‘God’ – then could you get on board?” And X may be humanity, or a Platonic good, or love, or the “idea” of a god, or any number of things. Most people I know who identify as atheist reject the move because we already have a meaning for the word “god” – one that enables us to communicate all sorts of important ideas. If we accept the revisions people offer, we begin to lose the convenience of this label for our discussions. We are supported in this by conservative religious types, who don’t want their idea of the “true God” to be diluted by liberal religious ideas.

Abrams’ presentation highlights a side of the argument that I think gets less traction than it should in atheist circles: the idea of what “deserves” to be called “god”. As a linguist, I would say this points to the connotation of the word “god”, as opposed to the denotation. (See here for a primer on the connotation/denotation distinction, if you aren’t familiar with it.) The atheists (myself included) lean on what we see as the denotation of the word “god”, while the liberal religous types (I think Abrams now identifies in this group) focus on its connotation.

There is a temptation to say that denotation is the “true” meaning of the word, and connotation is just those emotional and cultural accretions that gather around it. But, as I teach in my Linguistics 101 class, that doesn’t capture how language really works.

Consider the words “dad” and “father”. They share a denotation – they both point to a male parent. But the connotations are worlds apart: the aphorism “Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad” is not contradictory, but hinges on the distinction many people have between the connotations of the two words. That difference is personally important. In fact, you could imagine a person becoming attached to a male parental figure who is not, in fact, technically their father, and coming to call him “Dad”. Would that be wrong? Of course not.

So, not only is connotation important, but it can sometimes be more important than denotation in deciding whether a word is appropriate to use in a particular situation.

Coming back to the word “God” and Abrams’ redefinition, where does that leave us? Well, when I listen to how she came to the definition, it seems that connotation was important – she needed a meaning that served the emotional and spiritual needs of the twelve steps – while denotation was negotiable – anything in the meaning that wasn’t believable was expendable. She was in an analagous situation to the person who calls “Dad” someone who is not their father.

Should Abrams have less freedom to redefine “God” than other people have to redefine “dad”? Of course not. There is nothing special about the word “god” that puts it above other words, outside the rules for how we use and modify words.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

What about those of us who want to use “God” in the more conventional sense – the sense we share with conservative religious people?

I’d say we’re still entitled to use it as we will. But, if our goal is communication and understanding, we should remember how other people use it. (This is true of any word we use – particularly those on which a discussion hinges.) Words mean what people use them to mean.

When I had listened to the interview with Abrams, my first thought was that it’s fine for her, but she shouldn’t expect anyone else to pick up the new meaning.

But what does that position mean? It means that I’ll grant more rhetorical points to conservative religious people – who are generally very far from me in terms of values and beliefs – than to liberal religious people such as Abrams – who are often right next door, sometimes in the same house as me (just speaking a slightly different language).

Yes, it still bugs me that they use language differently from me. Just like it bugs me that people use “affect” and “effect” differently from me, or they (to my mind) confuse “climatic” and “climactic”. So I have a choice. I can take my stand on the aesthetics of language use, or I can focus on the content and the meaning behind our different uses of words.

When I look at it that way, getting upset because not everyone speaks the way I want them to seems rather petty and self-defeating. The fact is, liberal religious people are natural and obvious allies of mine – and of yours, I suspect.

Sure, I’ll keep getting upset when people use language “wrong”. But I know that my irritation is entirely about me. They are doing the same thing people have done since the dawn of language. They are adapting and recruiting existing words and concepts to describe new ideas and new ways of dealing with old ideas. Nobody – not all the English teachers in the world, not the Académie Française – has ever managed or will ever manage to halt the fertile evolution of language. Trying to do so is a fool’s errand.

On the other hand, we live in an age where secularism is widespread, and growing. We live in a more rationally-governed, hopeful time than ever before. And if we can identify our many allies – people who share our secular values but not, perhaps, all of our beliefs or language – then we have a chance to spread secularism even more widely and deeply.

That is a mission worth working for. That is a mission worth swallowing a bit of linguistic irritation for.

Okay, that got a little more grandiose and ranty than I intended. But I think you get the idea. I would really like to know what you think. Do you agree with me? Am I missing some important fact about language or reasoning? Please let me know in the comments.