Thought For The Day – St George – 23rd Apr 2021

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It’s St George’s Day today. I’ve often wondered what the patron saints do for each other’s birthdays. Does David take George some daffs, while Patrick plays the harp, and Andrew pours him a whisky? As a Scot born here but from English stock, and having lived both sides of the border, I’ve always felt a bit weird about St George, and a bit alarmed at all that flag-waving. St George seems to have been a Roman soldier, but it’s not very clear why he’s a saint, or why he’s England’s patron saint. Most of us probably know him best for his dragon-slaying. Read More

Thought For The Day – The Repair Shop – 4th Mar 2021

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Someone witty has spotted the similarity between online meetings, and attending a séance: Elizabeth, are you there? We can see you, but we can’t hear you. Can you hear us? Funnily enough, last time there was a boom in seances was almost exactly a hundred years ago, after the 1918 flu pandemic. It seems that a national brush with mortality makes the veil between life and death feel so thin that people want to try to contact those they’ve lost. Read More

Thought For The Day – Baby’s First Christmas – 8th Dec 2020

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Judging from all the carefully cocooned Christmas trees walking past my window trailing gleeful children, I’d say a lot of people are getting their trees early this year. Any why not? In such a bleak year, when we’ve been confined in large part indoors, it feels appropriate to dress the house and to celebrate the start of the end of this dreadful saga.
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Thought For The Day – Walking Back to Happiness – 13th Oct 2020

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It’s the 40th anniversary of the creation of the West Highland Way, the first trail of its kind in Scotland. It starts in Milngavie and heads north for 96 miles, following old cattle drover routes and military roads. It winds past Loch Lomond; through Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe; before skirting Ben Nevis to finish by the Sore Feet statue in Fort William.

In a normal year, more than 100,000 people walk part of the trail, staying overnight in the villages en route. When I walked it, we survived an all-day deluge on Rannoch Moor, and had to wear midgie hats to make it safely into Kingshouse. To pass the time, my sister taught me to Address the Haggis, while I taught her tramping songs. Read More

What is morality if the future is known?

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In the movie Arrival a linguist learning an alien language gains access to a consciousness that knows the future. Unlike our consciousness, which runs from cause to effect and is sequential, theirs can see the whole arc of time simultaneously.Their life is about discerning purpose and enacting events, while ours is about discerning good outcomes and deploying our free will and volition to those ends.

In Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, on which the screenplay is based, this is explained theoretically with reference to Fermat’s principle of least time. This states that the path taken by a ray between two given points is the path that can be traversed in the least time. Lurking behind this idea is the realisation that nature has an ability to test alternative paths: a ray of sunlight must know its destination in order to choose the optimal route. Chiang has his protagonist muse about the nature of free will in such a scheme: the virtue would not be in selecting the right actions, but in duly performing already known actions, in order that the future occurs as it should. It’s a bit like an actor respecting Shakespeare enough not to improvise one of his soliloquies. Read More

Robot Dread

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I sense a morbid fear behind our catastrophizing about androids, which I reckon is to do with a loss of autonomy. It’s true that for periods in history tribes and people have assumed they have no autonomy, life being driven by the fates or by a predetermined design or creator, so this could be a particularly modern malady in an era that luxuriates in free will. But concern about the creep of cyborgism through the increasing use of technology in and around our bodies seems to produce a frisson of existential dread that I have been struggling to diagnose. Technology has always attracted its naysayers, from the early saboteurs to the Luddites and the Swing Rioters, and all the movements that opposed the Industrial Revolution, but this feels less about livelihoods and more about personhood. Read More

Thought For The Day – The Veil of Ignorance – 25th Aug 2020

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Schools are all over the news just now, not just about mask-wearing, and how to be fair to students after this year’s disruption; but arguments over the recent exam results have got more of us thinking about the algorithms that influence our lives.

For some people, algorithms are by definition unfair, because they’re sets of rules which computers have to follow to the letter. Of course many religions and philosophies use rules-logic, like Thou Shalt Not Kill, or The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number. But rules-based morality begs big questions about the biases of those writing the rules, and aren’t flexible enough to deal with exceptions, as we saw with the anomalies produced in exam grading. Read More

Robots don’t have childhoods

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I’m sitting on the beach at North Berwick, with clear views out to the Bass Rock and May Isle, watching the children play. My daughter digs a deep hole, then runs off to find hermit crabs in the rock pools. Nearby, a young boy is buried up to the neck while his sister decorates his sarcophagus with shells. On the shore, a toddler stands transfixed by a washed-up jellyfish, while two older girls struggle to manipulate a boat in the shallows, trying to avoid the splashing boys playing swim-tig.

We’re under the benign shadow of the North Berwick Law, where there’s a bronze-age hill fort, so it’s likely this holiday postcard scene has not changed much since this part of Scotland was first settled, thousands of years ago, when those children dug holes, found crabs, and frolicked in the sea. I felt a wave of such sadness, thinking forward in time. Will this beach still play host to the children of the far distant future, or will we have designed out childhood by then? Robots don’t have childhoods because they don’t need them. Humans still do, but I wonder how much time you’ve spent trying to figure out why?

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Thought For The Day – Love Thy Neighbour – 7th Jul 2020

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15 years ago today, terrorists detonated bombs on three London Underground trains, and a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. As well as the suicide bombers, 52 people were killed, and over 700 injured. It was Britain’s deadliest terrorist attack since Lockerbie in 1988.

Our shock and anger in the wake of these attacks galvanised the UK government’s efforts to stop them ever happening again. A year later they published their controversial Prevent strategy, which has been widely condemned in England as fuelling islamophobia. But I’ve undergone the Prevent training both sides of the border, and I learned a lot from the Scottish approach. Read More

A Year of Universal Basic Income?

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Following the first cases of Covid-19 in the UK in January and February, lockdown was announced on the evening on Monday 23 March. Since then, citizens have been working from home, except for keyworkers, or have been laid off or furloughed under the government’s Job Retention Scheme. As at 12 May, 7.5 million jobs have been furloughed, and the British Chamber of Commerce reported that 71% of businesses surveyed by them had furloughed some staff. This means that the UK government are currently paying the wage bill for about a quarter of all UK employees. The scheme will be gradually phased out, with some part-time working and employer contributions, finally ending in October.

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