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Luxury!

July 21, 2017 Leave a comment

There’s a classic British comedy sketch called the “Four Yorkshiremen sketch” originally created for the 1967 British television comedy series “At Last the 1948 Show”. The best way to describe the sketch is to use the description from Wikipedia, which calls it “…a parody of nostalgic conversations about humble beginnings or difficult childhoods, featuring four men from Yorkshire who reminisce about their upbringing. As the conversation progresses they try to outdo one another, and their accounts of deprived childhoods become increasingly absurd.”

It’s one of my favourite pieces of comedy ever, so I think I need to include it here, even though it really has very little to do with my actual subject in this blog post. So here it is (the scene includes four well-dressed men sitting together at a vacation resort drinking expensive wine and smoking cigars)…

Michael Palin: Ahh… Very passable, this, very passable.

Graham Chapman: Nothing like a good glass of Chateau de Chassilier wine, aye Gessiah?

Terry Gilliam: You’re right there Obediah.

Eric Idle: Who’d a thought thirty years ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Chateau de Chassilier wine?

MP: Aye. In them days, we’d a’ been glad to have the price of a cup o’ tea.

GC: A cup o’ COLD tea.

EI: Without milk or sugar.

TG: OR tea!

MP: In a filthy, cracked cup.

EI: We never used to have a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.

GC: The best WE could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.

TG: But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor.

MP: Aye. BECAUSE we were poor. My old Dad used to say to me, “Money doesn’t buy you happiness.”

EI: ‘E was right. I was happier then and I had NOTHIN’. We used to live in this tiny old house, with great big holes in the roof.

GC: House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!

TG: You were lucky to have a ROOM! WE used to have to live in a corridor!

MP: Oh, we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!? Hmph.

EI: Well when I say “house” it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpaulin, but it was a house to US.

GC: We were evicted from OUR hole in the ground; we had to go and live in a lake!

TG: You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.

MP: Cardboard box?

TG: Aye.

MP: You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in-week out. When we got home, out Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!

GC: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o’clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were LUCKY!

TG: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o’clock at night, and LICK the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.

EI: Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

MP: But you try and tell the young people today that… and they won’t believe ya’.

ALL: Nope, nope.

Look for this on YouTube if you want to enjoy it as a video with the Yorkshire accents.

Anyway, the point is that some older people today like to exaggerate how bad things were back when they were young, and comment on how easy people have it today. To a certain extent they are right of course, because some things are easier today than for previous generations, but equally the memories of the past don’t tend to be particularly accurate.

Many things today are a lot harder than in the past. Jobs can be harder to get, pay rates aren’t as generous, security is much lower, the rate of change in required skills is much higher, and general stress and the pace of life are greater. Sure, we have a lot of modern technology which makes our lives easier, but the advantages that science and technology have given us seem to be balanced by the disadvantages brought about by politics and economics.

In general I think the overall direction is positive, and this is shown by global figures indicating lower rates of poverty, famine, violence, and other negative factors. Sure, things could still be a lot better, and as the outcomes for some groups have improved they have worsened for others, but overall things are better.

But that wasn’t really the subject for this blog post. In fact, the subject was how things have changed in the last 30 years for computer geeks. As a geek who started working with computers in the 1980s I wanted to talk about how much easier (and harder) things are today.

Something like: Luxury! Back when I was young we used to have to wind up computer with key, load system with paper tape, took 3 hours… if we were lucky. Then we would type in program from keyboard and when we wanted to send an email ‘ad to catch nearest pigeon and tape piece o’ paper to its leg… etc… well you get the idea.

But seriously, now that I have wasted this blog post talking about a comedy sketch I think I will leave the original subject to next time. So check back in the next few days for an actual discussion on how much better/worse computers are now than 30 years ago. And do go and watch that comedy sketch (there are several versions on YouTube, but my favourite is titled “Monty Python – Four Yorkshiremen”). It’s a classic!

A Ticket to Heaven

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When my wife arrived at her cafe a few days ago she found a whole pile of “tickets” stuffed under the door. Regrettably they weren’t tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert here next year (not a fan myself, but she seems to be) but they were for something even better: heaven!

According to the ticket: “Entry to Heaven requires that you have lived a perfect life and never broken one of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Or stolen anything (regardless of value)? If so, you will end up in Hell.”

This seems rather harsh, especially for people who have no idea what the 10 Commandments even are (less than half the world are Christians), but reading further it seems there is a certain amount of wriggle room, because “But God in His mercy provided a way for ALL sins to be forgiven. He sent His Son to take your punishment: God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

There seems to be a few odd aspects to this system. First, if God is so mercifull why didn’t he just forgive us instead of allowing His Son to be tortured and killed? In fact, God didn’t just allow it, he required it, or there would have been no sacrifice. After all, who requires the forgiveness? God does. So in order to allow that he needed Jesus to be horribly tortured. Very strange when you look at it logically, isn’t it?

But it gets a lot worse than that. It says here that anyone who sins (and since no one has a perfect life that would mean everyone) will definitely go to Hell, no matter how minor the sin. But everyone can be forgiven their sins, no matter how bad, if they make some sort of commitment to Jesus. Later on, the ticket recommends prayer to God listing your sins (that would be a long prayer for some people), stating that you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and requesting forgiveness and everlasting life. After the prayer you must read the Bible every day and follow what it says.

So a person who told one small lie (even one which was for the good of the person being lied to) and didn’t pray would go to Hell, but someone who spent a life murdering, stealing, etc, then prayed just before his death would be fine. What kind of messed up god is this? This is not a ticket to Heaven, it’s a “get out of jail free” card – or should that be “get out of Hell free”.

There’s a URL (www.2besaved.com) on the ticket which leads to a web site which is one of the ugliest I have seen in recent times. Apparently God doesn’t believe in hiring good web designers. At the site you can “CLICK HERE IF YOU NEED TO BE SAVED” (I didn’t feel the need) or “CLICK HERE IF YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN” (I’m not) or “CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER STUDY” (that sounded like me). By the way, sorry about the all caps, it’s just that kind of site.

The further study was a bit disappointing though, because even the bizarre ticket made more sense than the material in that section. There was a complicated argument about which day is the sabbath, an even worse discussion on how to pronounce God’s name (Yahweh), and a rather alarming essay on the correct way to eat meat (hint: it’s best not to).

But I’m not even sure why all of this detail is so important, because I can do whatever I want, then get forgiveness from God later.

Now you might have noticed a rather flippant, facetious tone to this post so far. That is because the whole things is just so silly that it’s hard to take seriously. But many people do, and that’s why I like to write these “anti-religion rants”.

Many atheists, even really “strident” ones, like Richard Dawkins (I don’t really believe he is strident, of course), seem to back away from criticising the New Testament and the alleged teachings of Jesus in particular.

There’s a certain amount of sense in this because the New Testament undoubtedly has a more forgiving, accepting, and positive tone than the Old. But there is one thing about it which is at least as damaging and negative as anything in the Old Testament: the mythology regarding Hell.

Because in the OT, Hell is just a place with no particular function of punishment. In fact both the righteous and unrighteous go there (to two separate areas) and it is best thought of as “the underworld”.

It is only in the NT, with the teachings of “kind, forgiving, loving Jesus” that the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment is introduced. And that place is reserved for whom? Is it morally corrupt people like murderers? No, it is for people who fail to accept Jesus as their “saviour”. So Jesus seems to offer salvation but only from a hideous torture that he himself introduced. And not only that, salvation is not given to those of high moral standing but to those who are prepared to become slaves of his particular movement.

If any other leader of any kind resorted to these tactics would we celebrate him as a wise and loving leader or as a hideous despot? I think we all know the answer to that.

So I think it is fair to label Jesus (let’s just assume he actually existed for the purpose of this discussion) in that negative way, but we should also have some balance and admit that there is a lot of good stuff in his alleged thoughts too. In the end, he’s just like anyone else: a mixture of good and bad. And the New Testament is just like any other book of mythology/philosophy/theology: a mixture of good and bad.

The key thing is that the good doesn’t come from the religion. What good is there is recognised because humans, as a social species, have moral standards which are more or less consistent, although they vary to some extent across cultures and across time. We don’t get a ticket to heaven through mindless servility to a deity. We get that (metaphorically, because heaven doesn’t really exist) through doing the right thing.

Abandon Ship!

May 19, 2016 Leave a comment

The great ship had served its captain and officers (although not so much its crew) well for years, but it was beginning to show its age as it sailed into new waters quite different from what had been seen before. It had been necessary for many years to apply patches to the hull, to build extra structures onto its once clean form, and on several occasions it had been close to sinking only to be saved at the last-minute.

By now many people were wondering whether they should look for a whole new ship. But the senior officers were against this. They had spent years extending their cabins and it seemed wasteful to lose all that hard work.

The changes threatened the basic stability of the ship because the luxurious quarters were built on the upper levels and had almost caused it to capsize on many occasions. It was only through the establishment of an extended class of stabilisation experts who spent their lives moving dead weight from one part of the ship to another that disaster had been avoided. But the resources required for this had added so much weight to the ship that it had sunk dangerously low in the water.

A solution to this had been found too. It was to reduce the space available to the lesser classes of crew. Those who kept the engines running, for example, needed little space because they spent more and more time in the engine room itself. And as they worked longer hours fewer engineers were needed meaning that some could be thrown overboard to save even more space.

Some of the engineers were uncomfortable about their colleagues being disposed of with so little thought but the more it happened the more they realised how dispensable they really were, and those on the upper levels of the ship obviously could see the “big picture” so much better than a mere engineer could, so very few complained.

The commanders looked at their work and saw that they had solved the complex problems and rewarded themselves for producing such an efficient solution by extending their living quarters even further. After all, if they had to work so hard they deserved some privileges.

It was important to plan for the future so the captain had posted a lookout. According to best practice the lookout spent the day reading predictions of what storms might be expected. There was also some assistant lookouts, a media adviser, and several administrators who helped keep the process running efficiently. The people filling these essential roles all got big cabins because it was important to encourage the best people to do such an important task.

The predictions were produced by the best experts in the area and clearly stated that the ship would correct itself based on the forces it encountered in future. Everyone knew that it was important not to interfere with the self-correction processes of the ship.

There were some lower ranked members of the crew who claimed to know better. They were often seen in uncomfortable places that no true professional would go, like near the top of the mast, looking through obscure instruments like telescopes.

Their warnings could not be taken seriously by the captain because they could never agree on what exactly was ahead. Sometimes it was rain tomorrow, other times a storm the day after. Or they might predict a storm which didn’t arrive until a bit later than was predicted. Why would any competent captain change course based on such unreliable advice when the official lookout said everything was OK?

In recent times some of the lower echelons of the ship’s crew had to live on the deck because all the spare cabins had been bought by those who, through hard work and dedication, had accumulated more wealth. Seeing these people spoiling the previous tidiness of the deck upset the officers and they wondered why the cabin-less people had allowed themselves to get into that situation. Even after more cabins were built they still lived on the deck. No one could figure out what had gone wrong.

The ship wasn’t travelling as quickly as it used to but a lot of efficiencies had been gained by outsourcing the management of the engines to another group on the ship who had previously been in charge of the captain’s drinks cabinet. The senior officers were confident that the management skills this group had were clearly more important than any knowledge of engineering and the great improvements seen after the change clearly showed this was true.

The time the engines were on-line had reduced from 99% to 50% but that was considered acceptable when the streamlined management was considered. The engines were now being run by less staff and those that remained also were paid less. Why this scheme of expert management hadn’t been in place all along was the subject of many discussions around the captain’s table.

Some alarmists had claimed that fuel for the engines was getting low but using excess combustible material from the lower decks had kept them going with the same efficiency as always. The idea that eventually the fuel would be gone was considered ridiculous by the captain. After all, hadn’t the current system worked well for years?

At the end of the day, despite all the negatives heard from those who didn’t bother to participate in running the ship like it was, things were going well. Solutions to all the minor issues which had been identified were being considered by panels of experts, and abandoning the ship was totally unnecessary. Despite the sleek new ships which were often seen on the horizon there was no need to abandon the ship which had proved itself so reliable.

So the ship sails on, sinking lower in the water every year. The new models sometimes seen are starting to look a lot more attractive. And some of the crew wonder if maybe, just maybe, it really is that time… time to abandon ship!

The Meaning of Easter

March 29, 2016 Leave a comment

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, New International Version).

This is possibly the most well known verse in the Bible and many would suggest the central message of Christianity. It is also particularly relevant during Easter, of course, since that is when the sacrifice described by John supposedly happened.

Clearly how much importance you attach to these words will depend on your perspective on the Christian religion. Those who take it seriously will probably find the idea both inspirational and highly relevant. Others might find it inconsequential or even bizarre.

Let’s have a quick look at what this is all about…

Supposedly the only way God could solve the problems the world was experiencing (mainly to do with sin, but more on that later) at the time was to send his son, who was in some way both a man and a god, to a primitive and isolated part of the world so that he could spread the message of how to make things better.

And in addition to that God’s son had to be sacrificed in order for this new way of thinking (which in fact wasn’t new and had been discussed by philosophers for years) to become possible. The people who were being saved had to submit to God’s will by accepting his Son as their source of guidance, and if they didn’t they were likely to be punished horribly.

To complicate matters God’s son didn’t write down any of his ideas and no one else around him bothered to either, so there are various versions of what his real intent was.

Then, just to make things worse still, most interpretations of the new message were quite different than the existing one, and about 600 years after all this happened a lot of people think he changed his mind again and sent another messenger down (who really was going to be the last one, this time).

Finally, to add insult to injury, the followers of all God’s various messengers have caused unmatched death, misery, and destruction over the entire planet in a presumably misguided effort to follow their god’s wishes.

At this point you might wonder about whether God really knew what he was doing. This really doesn’t sound like the way a competent omnipotent being woud operate. And it doesn’t sound like things overall were much better after the sacrifice described in John 3:16 than they were before. In fact, you would really have to wonder, what was the point of it all?

But according to many commentators the world is gradually getting better. It is more peaceful, people live longer, they are happier and more free, and they are more healthy. Is this because of the sacrifice? Well, no, probably not. In fact, many of the worst aspects of the modern world are as a result of people still misinterpreting (presumably) God’s messengers (mainly the more recent one this time) and the real improvements have only happened through ignoring religion and following rationality, and especially the scientific method.

So despite the reverence with which this verse – and the message it imparts – is held by believers it is really more a condemnation of God’s incompetence to many. Maybe a better message would be this: For God was so incompetent that we would all be better off to ignore his inept bungling and just get on with improving the world ourselves!

Where’s God?

March 24, 2016 2 comments

So yet another vicious attack on a civilised and peaceful country has been carried out by a group motivated by Islamic extremism. And just like it has been in the past with almost every attack of this type we can all say “Islam Again” (see my previous blog post with this title from 2015-06-29). Why is it always (or almost always) Islamic extremists who perform these revolting acts of violence?

Is it because Islam is just a religion which encourages violence? I think that is certainly a factor. Is it because even though the fundamental reasons for extremism are non-religious that religion is still a convenient excuse for it? That is probably true in some cases. Is it because this is what their god actually wants? Well, apparently he does.

I mean, if he really does want peace you might think he would make those wishes known to his followers. But his communications with humans have always been a bit confusing. There are over 20,000 different Christian sects all with their own interpretation of God’s thoughts, for example. And different sects within Islam routinely kill each other in significant numbers.

But God always has been pretty mixed up. I mean Allah is the same god as the god of the Jews and Christians and his wishes seem to be very contradictory. With the Jews it was mostly “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. With the Christians mainly “turn the other cheek”. And with the Muslims something like “a religion of peace which was spread by the sword”.

So you can see how Islamic terrorists might reasonably think they are doing their god’s bidding. There are parts of the Islamic holy books which seem to indicate that killing infidels is OK and their god hasn’t really indicated that they are doing the wrong thing, has he?

I mean, if these atrocities really were against his will you might think he might want to clarify things a bit. Like by sending a sign that terrorism isn’t good. You know, like some of the cool stuff he did in the Old Testament. When he didn’t like Sodom and Gomorrah he destroyed them and all their inhabitants with fire. Sort of like an early form of napalm attack. God was so bad-ass back then!

But today he just sits around twiddling his thumbs while his followers commit vile acts in his name. And yes, that is literally true because we know the words “Allahu Akbar” are commonly used during terrorist attacks.

So I blame God for the violence we see today. If he approves of this stuff, fair enough, he should just keep quiet and let things continue. But the followers of the same religion who claim to be peaceful should have a think about this. Either God condones this violence and lets it continue or it is against his wishes. And if it is why doesn’t he do something about it?

It gets back to this: if the Islamic extremists have got the message wrong they need to be told they are wrong. And really only their God can do that. But where’s God when we really need him?

A Reason for the Season

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Well, Christmas is over for another year so I guess it’s about time I spoiled the holiday spirit with one of my curmudgeonly blog posts. We are often asked by the more traditional groups in society to remember the “reason for the season” but what is this and does a reason even exist?

Well no, I don’t think so. I think several reasons exist – one of which is the one the traditionalists are thinking of – but there’s no longer just one reason (and maybe there never was).

So let’s get it out of the way now: the most usually cited reason for the season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the symbolic founder of the Christian Church. As you might have guessed, I have a few comments to make about this particular reason…

First, no one really knows whether Jesus even existed. In fact I believe there are very good reasons to say he didn’t; however I realise that the majority of historians disagree with me on this one. The big problem is that it’s not a simple case of him existing or not existing. The idea that Jesus existed in the way described in the Bible is ridiculous and most historians agree that didn’t happen, but there are some reasons to think the myths might be based on a real person or maybe several people. So if the Jesus myth described in the Bible is very loosely based on real events does that mean he existed or not? It’s somewhere in between.

Second, the birth story is hopelessly confused and contradictory. Prophecy indicated Jesus should be born in Bethlehem but the story already indicated Nazareth so a non-existent census had to be evoked to try to reconcile this. There’s also the non-existent star mentioned in only one gospel, the contradictory virgin myth, the fact that no one knows the day, month or even year of the birth, etc, etc. So choosing December 25 seems to be totally arbitrary (or is it? see below).

Third, Christmas, along with all the other known traditions, dogma, and myths associated with Christianity, only appeared decades or centuries after the alleged events occurred (or, in most cases, didn’t occur) and the special days all seem to be borrowed from earlier traditions. Christmas is clearly a mid-winter celebration, for example, and Easter originally came from a spring or fertility ritual.

But if the birth of Jesus isn’t the reason then what is? In most countries the number of people reporting that they think of Christmas in the traditional, religious sense is shrinking. Christmas for many is about a break from work, time with family, an excuse to buy stuff, or just a summer (southern hemisphere) holiday.

So there is not just one reason, there are many: traditional, modern, religious, family related, consumerist, etc. Many Christians arrogantly assume theirs is the only reason but that isn’t true – it isn’t even the first. If we want to celebrate the original reason let’s go back to pagan rituals like Saturnalia, in fact the descriptions of those sound pretty cool (lots of drinking and sex).

Christians are welcome to their reason, no matter how silly it is, and I’ll stick to mine (enjoying summer, relaxation, drinking, etc) if they don’t mind. At least mine is based on reality.

The BS Brigade

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

There has been a bit of discussion recently about the decision made by the Australian government to cut benefits to parents who don’t vaccinate their children. Of course any sensible person would agree that, except for those with extremely rare medical conditions, every child should be vaccinated. The Australian ruling also gives a dispensation for religious beliefs but I would not agree with that, of course.

The bigger question might be this though: is it OK for a government to use that sort of coercion to force people into doing something that they might genuinely believe is a bad thing (even if they are wrong)?

The general consensus here seems to be that it would be a far too draconian rule for us here in New Zealand because we are not yet at anywhere near the same level of fascism that the Australian government is – they are surely one of the worst that Australia has ever had – even John Key looks pretty good in comparison!

So if that isn’t an option is there a better way to persuade people to do the right thing? Well I’ve been thinking about this and I think I have a cunning plan, a plan so cunning that if you put a tail on it you’d call it a weasel (I had to use that once in a blog entry, I promise I won’t ever do it again).

So my plan is to establish a group, or a force if you prefer, to help people who believe bullshit, and when I say help I mean help in the sense that the police often help (interpret that as you wish).

This group would constantly be on the alert for people who believe in bullshit such as global warming deniers, creationists, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, fluoridation opponents, homeopaths, alternative medicine followers, and of course vaccine deniers.

When one of these misfits was detected the BS Brigade would visit and point out how wrong they were. And because we know that not everyone responds to reason a certain amount of physical persuasion would be allowable, you know just a light thrashing or maybe a tasering in extreme cases – something similar to the more mild end of police tactics.

I’m sure at this point you can see what a great idea this is, but there is the old problem of funding. Well that’s just another one of the impressive benefits of my scheme: it would easily fund itself through reduced costs to the health system not needing to treat unvaccinated people who catch measles or other preventable diseases.

There is an apparently never-ending variety of different forms of bullshit which could be corrected so the BS Brigade would never run out of work. In the unlikely event that all the anti-vaccination crowd were “processed” it could start on homeopathy or some other similar nonsense, for example.

There are two other small issues which need to dealt with. The first is who determines what is BS and what isn’t? Well the obvious answer is that I could make that decision, but it would not be difficult to establish a consensus amongst scientific experts if a more democratic process was seen as necessary.

Finally, all of this would require some coordination and we would probably need to establish a ministry to oversee the complex processes. So we would need a minister of bullshit. I can’t see any major issue there because we already have plenty of politicians in our current government with great experience dealing with that every time they talk to the prime minister!