Will we see an ebook price drop?

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The European Commission (and the Department of Justice over in the US) has been investigating ebook price fixing by Apple, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan. You remember that ‘agency model’ that went into operation a while back, and wasn’t supposed to increase ebook prices (but did anyway)? Well, this appears to be – hopefully – the end of it. If the EC gets its way, retailers will once more be able to set the prices of the books (published by these guys) they sell.

Authors naturally don’t want prices to go too low, since of course they get paid on a share-of-the-profits basis, but hopefully they realise that prices that are maintained artificially high are doing them no favours either.

I learned it in Economics at school. If you have a commodity, then you can draw a graph of how the demand works in relation to price. There is a line where you maximise your profit – if you increase your price you will reduce your demand, but the two factors balance out and your profit remains the same. If you move off the line in either direction, you will reduce your profits, either because you’re working like stink but selling too cheaply, or you’re so expensive that nobody wants your product.

You’re pretty much OK if what you’re selling is essential and nobody can do without it – like petrol. Prices have gone up over 30% since I started driving, and have I stopped buying petrol in protest? Unfortunately not. Even if I leave the car parked outside, it will still not run on sunlight.

But ebooks are not only not essential (no, they really aren’t. You can get by without books if you have to, it’s just difficult) but they’re easily pirated – as we all know. So if you price your books too high, people don’t even have to do without – they just go and get a pirate copy for free!

Let’s watch this space. Will ebook prices fall significantly? Will we see less piracy with the reduction in incentive? I hope so. While writers undoubtedly write because they want to write, being able to devote lots of time to it (and therefore produce lots of good stuff) depends on making it financially viable. You probably can’t get much creative writing done if you’re doing a 40-hour-a-week-plus-commute office job to pay the mortgage.

Dyson Awards 2012

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The shortlist for this year’s Dyson Award has been announced.

As you’d expect from anything bearing James Dyson’s name, it’s an award for an engineering solution to a problem you sometimes didn’t know you had.

Need an ambulance capable of vertical takeoff and landing? The Dyson Award entrants have it covered.

Need to capture water vapour from the air to feed back into the soil in arid farming areas? The winner of last year’s Dyson Award has exactly what you need.

Worried about small fish being unable to escape from fishing nets because the holes close? Someone has been working on this and it’s on this year’s Dyson Award

But the problems tackled by the students entering the competition are not always so earth shattering. You know how toast always goes leathery and limp about thirty seconds after leaving the toaster? Obviously, this is a problem that has really exercised someone’s mind, because they’ve invented a toaster that is not only cordless and more efficient, but makes better toast.

And my favourite?

My absolute favourite is the Spanish entry, which is a suitcase that will follow you, like an obedient dog, through an airport terminal. It works by following a signal from your smartphone, and it moves on little caterpillar tracks.

It’s official. The Luggage is real, and it is coming to an airport near you.

Be afraid. Be very afraid…

The Problem of Evil (Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad)

Listen to this while reading!

Ever since someone decided that the Christian God was omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent, other people have been trying to explain how – in the face of apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that this could possibly be so.

Personally, I always thought that it was over-egging the pudding somewhat, kind of like “And also does windows”. I mean, isn’t omnipresent and omniscient enough?

But hey, nobody asked me.

Even so, I do wonder how they had the sheer brass to claim omnibenevolence for a God who was quite willing to destroy whole cities, including, presumably, newborn children, or who decided to drown the world and start again.

Even if you argue that these direct interventions of God were justified by the lack of respect he was being shown by the people concerned, one can hardly say the same about the inhabitants of Lisbon in 1755, when it was destroyed by an earthquake.

For centuries, the omnipotence-omniscience-omnibenevolence triad has posed a problem for philosophers and theologians. It’s easy enough to reconcile two out of three – it’s the addition of the third that makes it hard. This brings us to the Problem of Evil.

If God knows all and can do anything, then why does he allow evil to exist?

Some have argued that omnibenevolence is not the same as being sugary-nice all the time; that humanity needs adversity in order to grow and develop. Also, when it comes to human evil, this is allowed by free will – free will is not free if God prevents you choosing to be evil. Or that a certain amount of adversity/evil is necessary in order for us to know what ‘good’ is.

You can go along with this, but what about the disasters that seem to happen with no rhyme or reason, and which do not appear to produce any good consequences? A modern example being Hurricane Katrina: although you could say that it provided an opportunity for people to be charitable and help others, this probably does not satisfy the residents (alive and dead) of New Orleans.

John Polkinghorne (physicist and Anglican priest – way to go!) had a good think about this, and came up with an explanation that I find interesting.

Polkinghorne makes use of the ‘free will’ argument with reference to natural disasters; he doesn’t imply that earthquakes have free will and can decide where and when to strike, but he does say that God has to allow the natural world to act according to its nature. So if you are going to have a planet filled with liquid rock, you have to have a crust made out of plates, and that means that earthquakes are part of the deal. The fact that the exigencies of plate tectonics meant that in 1755 Lisbon was flattened by an earthquake was not evil – it was a natural consequence of the necessary working of the world. So Lisbon’s inhabitants were quite simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Or I suppose you could say that on average the workings of the world are pretty benevolent, and earthquakes are just the price you have to pay for what is mostly a pretty nice planet.

Against this view, you could say that this is all logic-chopping, and the inhabitants of Lisbon (and New Orleans) are still dead. Surely a really, really omnipotent god could arrange a planet that didn’t have earthquakes if he wanted to? (Just because our limited minds can’t conceive how this might be done doesn’t mean that an omnipotent being couldn’t do it.)

I have to say, though, my personal opinion is that – like Meatloaf – Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Omnibenevolence is not necessarily a quality essential in a god; in a parent, possibly, but I’m an adult now. Do I still need to believe in a being that is always good, or am I now capable of coping with the concept that my parents (and God) are mostly benevolent, and thus rather more complex than I would have liked to believe when I was a child?

The Life of Brian

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This film is allegedly a comedy. People laugh when they watch it, which is how I know it’s supposed to be a comedy. Personally, I think it’s a tragedy.

This is the story of a man who is trying to mind his own business and just live his life the way he wants, but his friends and family – and increasing numbers of others – won’t let him. They insist on forcing him into a role he does not want, even over his protests. In the end, Brian has no freedom not because he is arrested by the Romans but because no matter what he does, his family and friends force him back onto the path they have chosen for him.

There are plenty of funny bits in the film, especially the bit with the People’s Front of Judaea… or is it the Judaean People’s Front? But for me they are overwhelmed by the tragedy.

Not only does poor Brian end up being crucified, and when he begs his family to take him down, they refuse, telling him how proud they are of his nobility and sacrifice, but some innocent Good Samaritan type also dies for the grievous error of judgement of trying to help someone in need. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed.

It makes me think… Do I do that to other people? We are all the stars of our own lives, with other people as Supporting Cast. But do I forget that they are the stars of their own lives too, not just bit-part actors in mine?

Do I pay attention to the people around me, or am I so focused on what I think, what I feel, and what I want, that I don’t see people for who they really are?

When Brian’s family go to him when he’s up on the cross and refuse to take him down and thus save his life, they think they’re doing what he wants. They think they’re doing the right thing. But because they never really pay attention to him, they end up depriving him of everything he values including, finally, his life.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian

Just go back to bed…

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You ever have one of those days when one thing goes wrong, which leads to something else, which leads to something worse… and before you know where you are, the day is irretrievably ….ed [insert expletive of choice] and it’s not even 8am yet?

I had one of those days today.

There is, of course, a sensible explanation, which is that when something goes wrong, you get delayed, stressed and flustered, which makes it more likely that something else will go wrong too. However, it’s often easier to believe that it’s actually because the universe hates your guts.

In circumstances like these, it sometimes helps to contemplate someone who is in a worse state than you are.

Take Ramses II, for instance. All he’s trying to do is make the targets on his public works program, and because of bolshie unionists with a powerful backer, his kingdom ends up getting trashed.

Or was it a series of natural disasters, each (mostly) proceeding logically out of the one before, in the classic manner of a day that just keeps on getting worse?

See here:
The Ten Plagues of Egypt

I remember watching the TV program when it first came out, and thought it was amazing. There’s even a book about it, which I want to get when I have the spare money:

The Plagues of Egypt by Trevisanato

Of course, before anyone gets up and fires off an angry comment telling me that God arranged all these plagues, I will point out that a natural explanation does not rule out miracle. As has been said before, the timing was certainly miraculous for the Hebrews. And isn’t it just a little bit presumptuous to assume that God wouldn’t have arranged a nice, tidy, labour-saving domino effect? Any God intelligent enough to invent mitochondria and with the sense of humour to create the duck-billed platypus would certainly not find such a beautifully logical progression too much of a challenge.

And to go back to my original point… if thinking about the poor Egyptians doesn’t make your day a bit brighter, you could always just go back to bed and hide under the covers until tomorrow, and hope the universe moves its malevolent attentions elsewhere.

Ethics: backwards or forwards?

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Here is a thought before going to bed: when thinking of the right action to take in a difficult ethical situation, do you think of the action first then reason backwards to why it would be right, or do you think of your reasons first then come to a conclusion?

If a friend tells you something after you’ve agreed to keep a secret, but the secret might hurt someone else – do you tell?

If we are a good little Virtue Ethicist (like in my previous post) we presumably will instinctively choose the ‘right thing’ and be able to explain why post facto.

If we are a Utilitarian, we will presumably think of our options and their consequences, and then choose an option.

I am therefore not as good a Utilitarian as I would like to be, because I find myself going backwards, trying to justify the answer I ‘feel’ is right. But I don’t see myself as a Virtue Ethicist (good people make good decisions) and besides, even if I did, I don’t think I’m that good a person.

I suppose another reason I don’t like Virtue Ethics, (other than the fact that it seems to be telling me how I ought to think, not just how I ought to act) is because if you need to be a virtuous person to make virtuous decisions… where does that leave me? (See, Lowestofthekeys – I admit it. Maybe the reason I don’t like Virtue Ethics is because I’m just not virtuous enough…)

For me, I guess one reason to study ethics is to understand more of the depth and breadth of the possibilities, and maybe apply a bit more thought and logic and a bit less instinct.

At least until I turn into Gandhi.