Fit Tab A into Slot B… or Slot C?

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There was an article in the paper today about homophobia in German football. My interest in German football (or English football, for that matter) is zero, but it was an interesting article. Germany is one of the most tolerant countries in Europe (as you’d expect from a nation known for its logic and Vorsprung durch Technik); as the article said, one of its cabinet ministers and the Mayor of Berlin are openly gay. Yet its footballers must stay firmly in the closet, to the level of feeling that they have to choose between their sexuality – and therefore their chance of having a loving sexual relationship – and their career.

What kind of choice is it, what kind of world is it, where someone has to sacrifice their partner or their dream because of other people’s prejudice?

Yesterday, there was another article, this time about Milan, where the first gay couple have just registered their civil partnership, to predictions from the Church that this will cause the End Of Civilisation As We Know It.

Good news – a long way to go, but a journey of a thousand miles and all that.

Makes me think. I mean, why?

For centuries, in Western Europe, society has regarded male homosexuality with horror and revulsion. (Interestingly, in Ancient Greece, homosexual acts were not only not regarded as bad, but was a normal part of society.) Why is that?

Why do we feel the need to despise and/or punish someone for something they do in private, with another consenting adult, and that we will never see, hear, or be expected to participate in?

A friend of mine – he’s a great guy, but he’s practically the definition of parochial white working-class male – is a case in point. We were at an event the other weekend and these two guys came over to talk to us; we had an innocuous conversation and then the two guys went on their way. After which my friend said words to the effect of “I’m glad they didn’t admit they were gay, or I’d have said something rude.”

What I have to ask myself is:
1. If you go somewhere with a companion of the same sex, why do people assume you must be sleeping with them? Is this why car-share schemes aren’t more prevalent?
2. If you are sleeping with your companion, what business is it of anyone else’s?

It’s mostly men who are this homophobic (if my friend had made his comment in the hearing of his wife, she’d have hit him with a skillet; which I’m far too polite to do, and besides, she had the skillet) and, guys, why is that?

Is it because you just don’t like to think of a man being on the receiving end – being the hunted rather than the hunter?

Is it because you think you might end up being pursued yourself? I did ask my friend this, pointing out that while naturally I consider him to be one of the most desirable men I know, some people have strange opinions and do not consider being on the wrong side of fifty-five, balding, and twenty-five stone to be necessary qualities for sexual irresistibility.

He said that just thinking about it made him feel ‘icky’. Since I considered that I’d been pointed enough already, I didn’t ask him whether he always pictured everyone he met having sex, and if he didn’t like the picture he didn’t pursue the acquaintance.

I know all about the it’s-not-natural argument, but neither is the internet and here we all are. Besides, there’s evidence of homosexual behaviour in non-human species, which pretty much disposes of that. If you’re going to quote Thomas Aquinas, and his argument that any sexual activity not resulting in conception being unnatural and therefore wrong, then if we accept that then we should not allow infertile people (that includes all women after the menopause, by the way) to have sex at all.

I know about the the-Bible-says-it’s-wrong argument, and quite frankly, the Bible also says we shall not wear polyester-cotton (Deuteronomy 22:11, if you don’t believe me) and I don’t see the Church up in arms about the increasing incidence of drip-dry shirts. It’s hardly consistent to only pick out the laws you like the sound of and discard the ones that might result in personal inconvenience, like having to figure out how to use spray-on starch without getting white bits everywhere.

I cannot think of a single argument against homosexuality that stands up to logic.

Why should we interfere in who a person chooses to love? Surely the world could do with more love, not less? And if two people want to do the horizontal tango, in private, then who are we to interfere? It doesn’t affect us in any way. And then, if they want to marry, to make a public commitment to each other, then surely that’s a good thing? Stable relationships, happy people, all that kind of thing.

OK, rant over. See you tomorrow… same time, same place?

Clockwork Angels

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Clockwork Angels

Clockwork Angels book cover. Authors: Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart.

Clockwork Angels is the companion book to the new Rush album of the same name. It’s a steampunk fantasy describing a young man’s dissatisfaction with his safe, ordered life in the Watchmaker’s precisely ordered realm (even the rain arrives on time) and his embarkation on an impulsive adventure that rapidly spirals out of control. Through the book, the hero – Owen Hardy – changes from a naive boy to a young man.

However, if you are expecting complex plotting and multi-layered characters, you will not find them. Clockwork Angels is an allegory; Owen’s physical journey represents his (and everyone’s) journey to maturity, with the inevitable disillusionments and discoveries along the way. As you travel with him, you get to think about the virtue of balance, and the fact that extremes of either order or chaos can be equally undesirable; the nature of life and death; the purpose of imagination; and freedom – the freedom to choose, and the freedom to fail; and more. Some of these concepts occur as themes throughout the book (such as freedom) and others as vignettes covered only in one scene or part of a scene.

Anyone with an interest in philosophy or French literature will recognise a strong resemblance to Voltaire’s Candide; in some ways, Clockwork Angels might be regarded as a retelling of Candide for a modern audience; the authors – for I include Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer – say in an afterword that Candide ‘was an early model for the story arc’. For Rush fans, there are also plenty of references to Rush’s previous work.

So in conclusion, you can read this just as a steampunk fantasy and enjoy it, but by doing so I think you would miss out on the best bits. Read it slowly, and allocate it the brain space and time for some good thinking. You’ll be glad you did.

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