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.

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.