May 9, 2020debates with my daughtersinformation agephilosophy

Should people be allowed to have weird names?

Are we going to allow the limitations of computer software to determine what we can or cannot do? If that were so, we wouldn’t have made it to the 21st century, and set our clocks back every year in order not to be bitten by the Y2K bug.

Deccan Herald This is from my Debates with My Daughters column that appeared in the Deccan Herald in 2019-20

He wants to fill the world with robots,” Victor declared, pulling one earphone out for a moment. And that is why he named his son that.” The three children were unanimous in their strident opposition to Elon Musk and Grimes naming their newborn son X Æ A-12. I wanted to understand why.

What do you mean Why’?” Færie was aghast. Imagine the anxiety and the discomfort the kid has to go through. I should know. You think a unique spelling is cool, but it’s not easy for the kid. No one will know how to pronounce his name.” My reply to her, as always, has been that she will be grateful to me years from now for giving her name a phonetically accurate spelling.

Airy shared the outrage. She also had additional arguments. It’s weird,” she declared.

But people should be allowed to have weird names.” I countered, knowing that she is big on individual freedom. It’s not about his right to free expression, but about his wisdom in using it” she replied, with a triumphant gleam in her eye. She had used one of my favourite arguments against me.

She went on.“The poor kid is not even a day old and already the subject of thousands of memes.” I pointed out that poor” is not a word I would use for a guy who was a millionaire even before he was born.
She switched gears and turned to practical issues. He won’t be able to fill up forms. Computers don’t accept numerical and special characters in the name field. Apostrophes and accent marks are already creating havoc.” I observed was that for her, forms meant online forms. I could have pointed out the existence of paper forms but didn’t do so, to keep my tech-savvy reputation intact.

Instead I sought refuge in philosophy. Computers, I ventured, exist to serve humans and not the other way around, despite what the government-people, HR and customer service types would have you believe. Musk can name his son anything and the computer systems of the world ought to change to accommodate that. Victor was not impressed. He pulled one earphone out again. You mean all the computer systems in the world must change just because one guy has strange characters in his name?”

Yes,” I said. Why not? Are we going to allow the limitations of computer software to determine what we can or cannot do? If that were so, we wouldn’t have made it to the 21st century, and set our clocks back every year in order not to be bitten by the Y2K bug.” He gave me a look he had clearly inherited from his mother, put his earphone back on and lost further interest in my arguments.

None of them were convinced. I reminded them, to no avail, of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and how, in the early 1990s, he had changed his name to a unpronounceable symbol. He did what he did of his own free will, unlike Musk’s newborn baby.” Right again, but baby can change his name to something else, no? Yeah, but only after going through 18 years of misery.

I was going to lose this debate, despite winning on points.

There are many more Debates with my Daughters here

To me this conversation looked like the thinking fast and slow thing that Daniel Kahneman uncovered. When people encounter a name like X Æ A-12, they instinctively feel it is wrong. The fast brain jumps to a conclusion, the reasoning comes later. The slow brain that does the reasoning is enlisted to justify the position that fast brain jumped to. There’s no watertight reason why a person can’t be named X Æ A-12, but somehow it’s still wrong”.

There might be, it turns out, one mundane reason. California’s laws require names to consist of the 26 letters of the alphabet. I guess that settles it.



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