Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Good Place: Making ethics accessible and fun

I got Netflix at the tail end of last year, mostly so that I could watch Star Trek: Discovery.  (Aside: Discovery is good, but it’s turned into a programme that I enjoy having watched rather than actively watching.  That may be a blog post in its own right.)  But since I had Netflix, I took the opportunity to watch a few other programmes on it that had been recommended to me, one of which was The Good Place.  And oh, goodness, gracious me, I’m so glad I decided to give it a go.

The characters in the show are just wonderful.  Eleanor is our main protagonist, someone who is welcomed into the “Good Place” after she dies, and who realises that there’s been a mistake, and she doesn’t belong there.  But, with the help of her soulmate, Chidi, she resolves to become a better person in the hope of earning her place, and following her on that journey is a joy.  Chidi is a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and he’s the one who weaves in actual ethics and philosophy into the programme, even if it’s usually Eleanor or one of her neighbours, Tahani and Jianyu, who enact what they’ve learned and make it real for the audience.

Although Tahani is a secondary character, she very quickly cemented her place as my favourite character on the show.  Her wealthy philanthropist who’s really insecure inside is so deftly portrayed, and her constant name-dropping is hilariously over the top.  But despite her pretension, she’s a genuinely warm character who cares about those around her.  Following actress Jameela Jamil on Twitter, and seeing her I Weigh campaign, has done nothing but increase my respect for her and love for the character.

And then there’s Michael.  An eternal being and architect of the neighbourhood in which our protagonists live, he’s a dapper fellow, always in a good suit with a bow-tie (bow-ties are still cool!) with Janet, the not-a-lady, not-a-robot, all-purpose sort of PA, who provides the residents with anything they want, alongside him (and who is, incidentally, another brilliant character).  Ted Danson gives Michael an air both of naivety and ancient knowledge at the same time, and his physical portrayal is excellent, with one hand always nonchalantly in his pocket, even when things are going wrong.

One other thing that I really like about the show is how it handles Eleanor’s apparent bisexuality.  Unlike another Netflix show I could mention (*cough*Discovery*cough*), it doesn’t fall into the trap of showing that an evil character is evil because they like men and women.  In fact, Eleanor’s bisexuality isn’t remarked upon at all.  She shows it through her words and actions, but it’s not a thing.  The show doesn’t feel the need to draw attention to it at all, and just lets it be a part of human nature.  And that’s a rare show of maturity in Hollywood, one that I’m really pleased to see.

I’ve not fallen this hard for a TV show for a very long time, but after just a few episodes, I came to adore The Good Place.  The characters are so warm, the humour is gentle and the philosophy is real – you learn without even realising it!  The story moves along apace, with twists aplenty but it stays reasonable, with everything building on what comes before.  It’s a caring show, where the humour doesn’t come at the expense of the characters being nasty towards each other.  Instead they build up a camaraderie and bond that’s wonderful to see, as it’s forming.

For want of a better word, it’s a compassionate show, with a message of hope for all of us, and in this time and place, that’s something that’s sorely needed amongst all the grimdark out there (looking at you, again, Discovery).

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Happy New Year

Happy new year to everyone!  My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website. Also, it appears that I’ve been writing these annual reviews for a full twenty years now! If you want to see earlier ones, they’re all on my website.

As the days lengthen
And new shoots push cautiously through the soil
May the coming year bring renewal of hope, kindness and happiness.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Missing Banksie All Over Again

Some time ago I found a long interview with Iain M. Banks that I didn’t have time to read at the time, so I stashed it into my bookmarks and then forgot about it.  I found it again the other day and started reading.  Early on, the famous essay A Few Notes on the Culture was mentioned and I realised that I’ve never actually read that so took a tangent that I’ve not made it back from.  It’s a really interesting essay both for fans of the Culture and for general fans of future history and worldbuilding.  I found a fantastic quote which seems very apt for the times we’re living in, which I was going to tweet, but then Bankie was never really known for being concise, was he?

The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is – without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset – intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

Given the briefings coming from Westminster about turning the UK into a deregulated tax haven, slashing workers’ rights while making corporations even more unaccountable, I fear Banks’ words are all too true.

I think it may be time to get away from it all with a Culture reread.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

Happy new year to everyone!  My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website.

After the turbulence of the past year
May the ships of state and self steady
And sail on to gentle harbour

Wishing you a happy and peaceful new year and may your times be uninteresting.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Perceived value of different media

This is a slightly random thought and I warn you now that it’s not likely to go anywhere, but I was grumbling the other day about Amazon’s somewhat random choices on Amazon Video about what is available to rent and what isn’t, as well as the pricing structure.

I was looking for the original Pink Panther film but it was only available to buy for £7.99 while its sequel was available to rent for £2.49 (both on the Amazon Video streaming platform).  I thought that I’d leave it for the moment in the hope that the original would become rentable since I only wanted to watch it once.

What got me thinking though, was that I’d happily pay £7.99 or more without blinking for a book that I might only ever read once. Why do I think that a film isn’t worth paying that much for, but a book is?

I’ve always loved books and since I’ve had a disposable income I’ve enjoyed buying and owning books, even ones that I don’t reread, and although bought films were as rare as bought books in our household (we used the library and video rental store a lot when I was young), I value the books more.

In saying that, buying a new book is still A Thing and not something I would do on a whim, so I wouldn’t just sit down of an evening and buy a film like this in the same way.

Still, I do wish that I could rent a film from Amazon that they have available to buy on the streaming platform.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Paddington’s Message

This evening, I watched the Paddington film, and I absolutely adored it.  It shows a stranger, an immigrant, coming here, being welcomed and then accepted for who he is and what he brings to the country.  It shows a positive view of immigration that is sorely lacking in the media at the moment.

But what really brought a lump to my throat (and, I’ll admit, a tear to my eye) was what Paddington’s Aunt Lucy says to him just before she puts him on to a boat for London, near the start of the film:

Long ago, people in England sent their children by train with labels around their necks, so they could be taken care of by complete strangers in the countryside where it was safe. They will not have forgotten how to treat strangers.

“They will not have forgotten how to treat strangers.”  This is my Britain!  This is the Britain that I love; not the Britain of UKIP, brexit and division.  I’m glad that a film can still be made that has that positive message of compassion, inclusion and acceptance.  Messages like this are sorely needed at the moment and I’m so glad that I finally watched this.  Bravo to Paul King and Studio Canal and I sincerely hope that the sequel doesn’t succumb to the zeitgeist of nationalism and insularity currently sweeping the western world.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Not too cool to be clever

Many years ago I wrote a blog post on then topical subject of selection in education.  As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  With grammar schools back in the news I was thinking about this again, and in particular my own experience in selective education, and comparing it with stories I’ve heard from my peers who didn’t go through the selection process.  And the one thing that seems to come up again and again from them was the stigma of being clever.

Being a geek and having been to university, my friends are a certain type, and being intelligent is very much part of that type.  And the thing that comes up again and again from them is that being intelligent is something that not only wasn’t valued by their peers in school, but it was a trigger for bullying.

This is something that I have trouble with.  Despite having had other problems, I was never bullied at school for being clever.  Every kid in my school had passed an exam to be there.  Being clever wasn’t something to pick on people for, because everyone knew that they had been selected on that basis.  This meant that nobody had to hide the fact that they were bright and, indeed, pupils even respected it.  The top of the class might not be the most popular kids, but they were never picked on for it.

The corollary of this, of course, is the other kids.  The ones who failed the magic test and were sent off to the other school.  This is the big problem with selection based on academic ability.  Those kids are the ones who were tagged as being failures at eleven years old.  Some of them will, of course, recover from that stigma and go on to live happy, productive lives.  Others won’t have.  I left Northern Ireland many years ago and don’t have the experience of living in that society and seeing how the selective education split affected the it, but my gut instinct is that it can’t be good.

(Incidentally, I wonder, in all the sound and fury of the current debate going on in England, if there’s been any research on how selective education has worked in Northern Ireland over the course of the last 50 years, given that it was only abolished properly a decade or so ago.  But then, since we’re all tired of experts, I would imagine probably not).

So for me, the big question is not about selection, but about how we go about having inclusive schools where intelligence isn’t something to be sneered at and a cause for bullying. Where children of all abilities can be educated together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, whether your gift is academic, musical, sporting, making or whatever. How do introduce this culture into families where the parents might have been the ones doing the sneering at the “swots” in their own school days? This is where the Government should be focusing its resoures, not bending backwards for the middle Englanders who want to go back to a golden age of education that never existed.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Let’s Encrypt for the Raspberry Pi (model B)

After my web host enabled HTTPS on my main website through Let’s Encrypt, I thought that it would be nice to do the same for my private web server running on my Raspberry Pi 1 (model B). I already had a certificate for the Apache server running on my Pi provided by StartSSL, but Let’s Encrypt is a neater solution.  I had some problems with this, so my solution is under the fold.


Friday, 1 January 2016

Happy New Year

Happy new year to everyone!  My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website.

As the embers of the old year cool
A new one rises from the ashes
With disappointment, heartache, adventure and joy
May the good outweigh the bad, always.

Happy new year.

Sunday, 15 November 2015


In one sense, those who carried out the terrible atrocities in Paris this weekend have won: I’m afraid.  Not of them; I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I was nearly blown up more than once during my childhood, so ISIS don’t frighten me (in that way, at least).  No, I’m afraid of my government, and those of other European countries and what they’re going to do now in response.  I’m afraid that there will be an inevitable knee-jerk reaction and tightening of security; further reduction of our freedoms; more profiling of those who are ‘different’.  It’s a cliché to say that this is exactly what the terrorists want but it’s a cliché for a reason, and in their hurry to answer the calls of Something Must Be Done, our leaders enact bad legislation that divides communities, provokes fear, and yet does nothing to make us safer.

I’ve been a member of Liberty for some years now and I’ve never been more convinced of the necessity of this organisation and those like it.  In the inevitable melee to come, we need calm heads who will think beyond the next headline in a way that politicians today seem unable to do.  People who will be a voice reminding our leaders what values they’re supposedly protecting and speak truth to power in a way that will be very unpopular in certain sections of the media.  Shami Chakrabarti and her colleagues at Liberty are brave people, braver than me, and I hope that they, and others like them, will be able to stand up to the calls to give up freedom in favour of security.  If they can’t, I fear that we will, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, end up with neither.

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