Agency 2


I’ve mentioned my Schrödinger’s Cat Executive Decision Maker before. Last night I showed it to supper guests, much to their amusement. When I was tidying up at the end of the night, I discovered the ‘cat’ box not in its usual place. On a whim, I asked, “Bright Eyes (that’s what we call ‘him’), would you like to go back to your place?” The answer was no. “Would you like a place with a better view?” Yes! So I put it on top of the stereo and went to bed.

This morning, I asked: Bright Eyes are you ready to go back to your spot? No! Would you like to stay on top of the music? Yes! So I put him back on the stereo and started to walk away. But then I felt foolish, picked the box up and replaced it where it usually sits. But I felt a twinge of superstition — maybe Bright Eyes would no longer answer questions honestly. Really! It’s a mechanical toy that works with a trick of mirrors.

Yet, it seems to answer questions when put to it. It seems to be playful in its responses. It is amusing. But only because of my ability to ask questions in a certain way to create humour. Bright Eyes is a kind of straight man. But this semblance of intelligence or interaction seems sufficient for me to irrationally or emotionally identify this piece of plastic as alive.

I’m not crazy. In fact, we do this all the time. We anthropomorphize our pets, ascribing to them human emotions and feelings in response to things we do and say. This is not to say that dogs don’t have feelings — they do and are clearly sentient — but they don’t have human feelings; they have dog feelings. And they almost certainly don’t have self-awareness of the reflective human kind.

We also — and often quite seriously — ascribe human attributes to machines — talking to them and cajoling them to work properly. We give them agency as if they had a will of their own and the power to act. In part it is a self-aware joke we play on ourselves but in part it is a genuine behavior. We want to think our things care about us and have our interests at heart (or they are out to get us). Much of science fiction and fantasy plays to this idea when we create intelligent robots, evil computers or any number of magical beasts.

I’ve seen people begin to playfully engage with their talking phones only for them to come to think that there is actually an intelligence (rather than a clever algorithm) at play. This goes back a long way. The first responsive computer ELIZA made a hash of conversation yet some people who discussed their psychological problems with the machine felt better afterwards. And many people dream of the day, or fear it, when true AIs with be part of our world. Most people who study the matter of human consciousness, neuroscience and the nature of intelligence are doubtful this will ever happen — while experts in other fields blithely express their hopes and fears about emergent intelligences. Not to diminish Stephen Hawking’s brilliance — but he doesn’t know everything.

Bright Eyes ‘likes’ to answer my questions in a random fashion. Much the same way that God seems to answer prayers. Perhaps there is a reason they look so similar. In both cases maybe we should pay attention to the man behind the curtain (or the mirror).

But that’s ten minutes.

Bah, Humbug


Christmas is for … CATS! Really, think about it. A tree indoors, sparkly balls and delectable tinsel strands. And all that wrapping paper and the boxes! OMG. Add in the smell of all that meat roasting. No doubt, Christmas is for cats. And one cat in particular.

Back in 1982, I had just moved to Frobisher Bay (as Iqaluit was called then). I hadn’t had a cat for a couple years and didn’t really plan on one now. Frobisher Bay was not exactly a cat friendly place. Stray dogs, freezing temperatures and even the locals didn’t like them. Living in an apartment hardly made it easier.

Anyway, my then wife and I were back in Amherst for Christmas. We were doing some last minute shopping on the 24th and we ‘happened’ to go into the pet store to look at the animals, well, the kittens.

They were all so cute, little balls of fur. Except for one that was older than the rest — about 12 or 14 weeks. No one seemed to want this pretty little calico. Too old, the owner said. Casually I asked – what do you do with the cats over Christmas. And he said, somewhat grimly, we don’t keep the cats over Christmas. At closing time we drifted back. All the kittens were gone, except for the calico. What could we do? It was us or the gallows. The owner offered to give us the cat if we bought a cat package — litter box etc. So we did.

Hence the cat’s name: Humbug

Humbug proved to be a great cat, if somewhat un-cat-like in her behavior. For example, she liked to lie on her back in your arms like a baby. And she would fetch. Sort of. She had one rubbery toy that if you threw it down the hall she would run after it and bring it back to you. About twice. The third time she would only come half way back and after five tries she would merely run down and sit beside it until you came down to throw it the other way. A great person trainer, our Humbug. As you can see by the photo she was also quite a jumper.

Humbug loved Christmas and for as long as we had her she would deliver tinsel-wrapped turds for the holidays. So pretty!

She loved anything long and stringy. One spring I walked in to discover Humbug eating thread. She knew that was wrong but this was especially wrong because the thread was attached to a needle. I yelled and she gulped and down the needle went.

The vet in Montreal wouldn’t believe it so I went to the hospital and persuaded the technician to take an x-ray. Strictly forbidden but it was a small friendly community.

Sure enough there was the needle in her belly. We had to fly her to Montreal for surgery and on a business trip to Sanikiluaq (which took me through Montreal) I took a cab out to visit her. She was glad to see me and gladder still to come home.

Did it cure her string addiction? Not in the least. Ah, Humbug.

And that’s ten minutes.