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.

Virtue Ethics, Or, The Mental Hygiene Police

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Hey, I’ve got my first follower! So this had better be good… unless he’s following out of morbid curiosity?

The subject for today’s rant will be Virtue Ethics.

Most ethical systems seem to be all about defining what is a ‘good’ thing to do (leave out the difficulty of defining ‘good’, or we’ll be here all night). They’re about how you figure out what you should do in a particular situation, and they generally attempt to give us some useful advice. Like Utilitarianism is basically ‘whatever will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the right thing to do’ (I’ll probably talk about Utilitarianism later, because it’s my favourite – Jeremy Bentham is my hero).

Not so Virtue Ethics.

Virtue Ethics says ‘If you are a good person, then you will do good things’.

I mean, how useless is that? It sounds exactly like my mother: “Why can’t you just be nice?”

Aristotle (OK, Plato, but Aristotle did more) started it, and it was all about eudaimonia which is basically ‘human flourishing’ – the state you’re at if you’ve reached that state of perfect harmony, I guess. So he went on about how a person should cultivate certain virtues, and by practicing them would get really good at them, and would eventually achieve eudaimonia. Happy, happy, happy.

Elizabeth Anscombe et al picked it up more recently. (I’m missing out a lot, can you tell? But this is my rant and I’ll do it how I want. If you want a lecture, that’ll cost you.) She reformulated the virtues, but kept the same idea that if you practice virtue, you will become virtuous, and then you will know what to do.

Yes, that’s great if you’re Mother Theresa.

And for those of us who aren’t Mother Theresa, this is helpful how, exactly? It doesn’t give you any help in dealing with difficult ethical situations – in fact, it makes your situation even worse because not only do you not know what to do, but now you feel guilty about it (on account of being told that if you were a good person, you would know what to do).

The thing is, the people who like Virtue Ethics, in their several forms, tend to say that Utilitarianism etc simply provide a list of rules that anyone could follow (well, duh… I thought that was the point). And that if you do a ‘good’ action simply because you were following rules, or for personal gain, or duty, then it’s not really virtuous. You should do virtuous things for their own sake, and only then can you be virtuous.

I don’t know about you, but this reminds me of my mother (again – she isn’t an ethicist, honestly). It wasn’t enough that I did what I was told – I had to be happy about it. And that’s bad enough when it’s between parents and kids, but when we’re talking about a whole ethical theory, I find that really, really creepy. Why should anyone else have the right to prescribe what I think? How I act, that’s fair enough – but surely the inside of my head should be private? It’s worse than looking through people’s underwear drawers.

What do you think about an ethical theory that cares more about what people think than about what they do?

When you consider it, it has quite far-reaching implications. Currently, our criminal justice system says that you have to actually commit a crime before you can be punished for it. Under Virtue Ethics, not only do you not get your karma points if you aren’t thinking the right things, but could you be punished for Wrong Thoughts?

If I really don’t like someone (and, believe it or not, even someone as sweet and lovely as I has people they would really, really, like to drive a bus over… several times) then is it bad if I fantasise about pushing someone off a cliff… or only if I actually do it? Do I get any karma points for resisting temptation? Under Virtue Ethics, I don’t think I do, and that’s got some fairly nasty implications too. If there isn’t an ethical difference between the thought and the act… then come walk that cliff path with me – if you dare!

Elizabeth I had it right, I think. When speaking of the religious differences in England – moving from the enforced Catholicism of Mary I’s reign to a return to the Protestantism that had been introduced by Henry VIII, she said to Parliament “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” She meant (I think) that she didn’t much care what people believed in their hearts – what mattered was that they acted Protestant and upheld the religious solidarity of the Church of England, and therefore did not upset the peace of the realm. She believed that a person’s mind and thoughts were their own business; the state – or presumably any other external parties – only had a concern with people’s actions.

Ebook piracy

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Today’s post was going to be about Richard III, but really, I’m just too tired. And tomorrow I’ve got to get up at dark o’clock, so producing something worthy of being left out on the internet where just anyone might see it is not going to happen.

Ebook piracy is an easier topic, because I can be opinionated without actually having to quote evidence.

So here we go.

I was a pretty early adopter of ebook technology – I first read ebooks on a PDA with a battery life of about an hour and a half, so today’s book readers with their battery lives of days or weeks of heavy reading are simply lovely. I like pressing buttons (the science museum in Budapest is fantastic – I’ll tell you all about it one day) so I love gadgets. But the ebook always seemed to be such a sensible gadget that I could never work out why so many people seemed to think they would just fade out. Or was it that they hoped it would just fade out? Not going to happen, guys. I mean, I was the person whose bag for going on holiday had a few clothes squashed at the bottom under about ten books. The only way to really be sure of picking the book you’re going to feel like reading in a week’s time is to take lots of choices. But with my ereader (a Sony PRS-T1, if you’re interested) I can take a thousand books, and be pretty sure I’ll want to read at least one of them. And without spending half an hour in agonised indecision in front of the shelves.

So, book piracy. It was always going to happen. You can do a search and find little programs that awfully clever people have written so that anyone can remove DRM from books. Nowadays, they even have graphical user interfaces (GUIs) so it’s easy for the computer illiterate (including myself, when it comes to the mysteries of command line prompts and whatnot) to operate them without in the least understanding what’s happening. So, since removing DRM is so easy, why put it on in the first place? It’s not as if it works. It just annoys people. That’s what Baen books think – they don’t DRM any of their books, and they don’t seem to have gone bust yet. (I like Baen. I like the way they think. They often give people a book – particularly the first in a series – for free, just to get them hooked and therefore more likely to buy more of the author’s work. Well, if it works for drug dealers…)

But why do people pirate books? I guess there’s a number of reasons. Thinking of the downloaders, the fact that they’re getting something for nothing is obviously part of it. But that’s not all of it. A major reason, in my opinion, is that the books are often just not available to buy legally. I live in the UK, and it is really, really depressing to see how many books are available electronically for American readers, but UK publishers have not brought out a UK electronic edition. So if I want to read the book, I either have to buy a format I don’t want (paper) or I have to pirate. I don’t have a choice that is both acceptable to me and legal. And why should I buy something I ultimately don’t want? While I would like to live in a house with as much shelf space as the British Library, the fact is that I don’t. I live in a little house with far too many books (paper) already. I don’t have room for more. (That’s the other reason I like ebooks – it’s not all about a love of pressing buttons or having room for enough underwear.)

Then there’s price. One might justifiably feel a little peeved about having to pay the same price for an ebook (which is basically an electronic file) as for a large hardback. I mean, we all know hardbacks are expensive. All that paper, then the transport and storage, etc… But ebooks? Yes, there are hosting costs, and there’s the rakeoff that the retailer (as opposed to the publisher) will take. But you can’t tell me it costs as much to produce a thousand ebooks as a thousand hardbacks. So why should ebook readers pay the same price? That is not fair. That is someone making a nice fat profit out of people who use ereaders. Oh, right… up until the file turns up on a file sharing site, and the annoyed and exploited potential customers download the book for free and the publisher, retailer, and author all get nothing at all. Did nobody ever tell them the story about half a loaf being better than no bread? Lower the prices and you might find that people go back to buying the book. People are fundamentally lazy; if you make it easy for people to do the right thing, then that is what they will do. Mostly. You’re never going to avoid piracy completely, but it’s certainly possible to keep it down to ‘manageable’ levels, I think.

Give people the book they want, in the format they want it, for a price that is fair, and many people won’t go to the trouble of trying to find a pirate copy. It’ll be ultimately easier to pay for the legitimate copy.

Annoy people by not making the book available in the format they want it, or by charging a price that is obviously unfair compared to other formats, and piracy not only becomes the easier (or only) option, but also becomes an act of defiance.

Publishers, remember. I am the consumer. I make the choices, and I ultimately call the shots. If you do not give me what I want, my money and I go elsewhere.

It’s as simple as that.

Film about Islam

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Want to see a really good film about Islam? Well, check out The Message starring Anthony Quinn.

You can get it on Amazon. As soon as I figure out how to put a link in here, then I will.

Hah, not the film about Islam you thought it would be eh?

Honestly, if you really want to know about the origins of Islam, then this is the film to watch. And it’s good just as a film, too, rather than being overly educational and preachy. Also interesting how they manage to make a film about the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) without actually having him in it. The closest you get is seeing his camel…

And here is the link for The Message.


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OK, first real post (and there should be a ‘d’ before ‘river’ in the previous post. In case you were wondering).

I don’t have kids myself, but I’ve often thought that something happens to people’s brains when they reproduce. Maybe they have them removed, I don’t know. Normally sane, sensible people go very weird, and people who were weird to begin with go outright Looney-Tunes.

Take kids’ names, for instance. It’s an important thing, your name. You’re stuck with it all your life, unless you get it changed. And you’re certainly stuck with it as a kid. So don’t you think a loving parent would choose the kind of name that wouldn’t cause trouble?

But no…

My husband knew a girl called Pearl Harbour. And that’s pretty tame in the schedule of appalling names parents inflict on their kids. What were they thinking? I bet they thought it was just too cute. ‘Pearl Harbour’ – a real laugh at dinner parties.

Then there’s the other kind, where the loving parents go entirely the other way and pick the same name as every other kid born that year. So junior goes through childhood thinking his name’s Joshdee (and the kid next to him in class is Joshbee).

And names that are contractions of other names…. Molly! Sounds like a rag doll. It certainly doesn’t sound like Ms Executive. At least call the kid Margaret, then you can call her Molly while she’s at home and when she leaves she can change it to Maggie, or Peggy, or Marge, or Greta, or whatever…

And before you ask… Theophania only on the most formal of occasions. Otherwise, it’s Tiffany, or Tiff. Theo is dreadful, and as far as I’m concerned, Fanny is an invitation to Grievous Bodily Harm. You Have Been Warned.

The first post.

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This isn’t going to be earth-shattering; not with a bang but with a whimper. Still, at least it’s a start.I’ve been wanting to do this for ages, but there’s always the little voice that says And what are you actually going to talk about? You? With the most tedious job in the world?” OK, not quite that, but coming close. Other people have great, exciting jobs like being ambulance rivers in London, or call girls in London…

Not so me, so if you’re expecting something like that, you’d better leave right now. Otherwise the buildup of anticipation as you wait for me to blow your mind with some kinky secret, or wow you with a tale of heroism, is likely to be lethal. The human body just can’t stand that kind of pressure.