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Category Archives: Books

I think I might have a real self-control problem when it comes to books. The latest manifestation of this malady came when I just couldn’t keep myself from delving into Living High and Letting Die, by philosopher Peter Unger – even though I was already reading three other books at the time (and had an examination the next day). But then again, the central message of the book can hardly fail to attract attention. In a nutshell, it argues compellingly that if ordinary middle- and upper-class people like you and I thought clearly about the moral demands of living in a world in which literally hundreds of thousands of children starve to death every year, we would realize that just about every single one of us fails quite miserably at meeting those demands.

I’ll probably go into a few details on some of the book’s most important ideas in a later post, but right now I want to talk about a very interesting discussion I had with a friend after I told her about Living High and Letting Die. She responded with considerable skepticism to the idea that relatively well-off people should donate significant portions of their income to organizations that provide life-saving aid, such as UNICEF and OXFAM. Much of this skepticism stemmed from the fact that, in all probability, you will never know exactly what an organization such as UNICEF does with the money you donate to it.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem if you were confident that every single dollar you donated was spent on things such as oral rehydration therapy (ORT) packets, and hence directly responsible for saving the lives of children in many parts of Africa and Asia. But that’s clearly not true. There are administrative costs involved in keeping UNICEF standing, and some of the money donated to it must be used to cover those costs. This may still not seem like anything objectionable, but what if we focus on one particular administrative cost: the salaries of the top officials at UNICEF?

Here’s the thing: it’s quite possible that the top-ranking officers of a multinational organization like UNICEF draw relatively large salaries. And those salaries are paid, indirectly, by people who donate to the organization. But surely the people who donate to UNICEF do so out of concern for children at risk, rather than out of concern for whether or not top-ranking officials at UNICEF get to live in nice houses, buy expensive cars, and so on? Does this constitute a valid argument against donating to UNICEF?

My own instinctive reaction was that it did not. I tried arguing that running UNICEF is important and difficult work, and that no one should feel bad about paying the salaries of the people who do that work. I tried to focus on the fact that since nearly no one else does the work that UNICEF does, you have to make a choice between helping needy kids while paying large salaries; or doing nothing at all to help needy kids – which had to be worse.

But it still didn’t feel right.

The people who are supposed to be saving the world’s poor are themselves living very comfortable lives, with money that could have been directed to the poor instead of to them.

I could tell that this was definitely something worth thinking about. But I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory argument either way, so I’m glad I came across this, towards the end of Living High and Letting Die:

“If it’s all right for you to impose losses on some particular person with the result that there’s significant lessening in the serious losses suffered by others overall, then, if you’re to avoid doing what’s seriously wrong, you can’t fail to impose equal losses on yourself when the result’s an equal lessening of serious losses overall.”

[slightly paraphrased for clarity]

Unger calls this the Reasonable Principle of Ethical Integrity, and uses it to argue for his central idea that well-off people like you and I should donate significant amounts of our income and wealth towards the people who are most in need of it. But even without following through to that conclusion, I think this points towards a very satisfactory answer to our conundrum regarding rich UNICEF employees.

Let me try to explain. Basically, the Reasonable Principle of Ethical Integrity argues that you’re not special, and that if morality imposes certain demands on UNICEF employees, it imposes the same demands on you. Hence, it might be okay for you to demand that UNICEF employees should have caps imposed on their salaries “because there’s kids starving in Africa”. But this would only be fair if you accepted a cap on the salary you may earn, wherever you work, “because there’s kids starving in Africa”, and because your employer (rightly) is more interested in keeping them alive than keeping you living lavishly.

Do you see what I mean? The gut feeling that UNICEF employees should not be living lavishly does have a lot of moral weight, but only in the sense that you should also not be living lavishly, regardless of whether your job is to help poor kids or not.  In fact, it’s crazy to penalize the people who are actually doing something to save the starving kids, when you refuse to penalize yourself in the same way. They’re the ones who’ve already given their professional lives to lessening serious loss, which is something you haven’t done. Therefore, they’ve already met a moral standard that you haven’t.

If you’re really interested in lessening serious losses (such as the loss of children’s lives), you must first somehow meet that same moral standard, before asking that it be raised only for the people who’ve already met it.

So, no, we are certainly not in a position to demand that UNICEF employees must live ascetic lives.

If there’s anyone who feels that this is somehow vaguely demoralizing, I offer the following comforting truth: UNICEF employee or not, we are all in an equal position to make personal sacrifices to help the poor and needy; this means that anyone who draws a large salary from whatever organization he or she works at has the ability to give away most of that money towards helping the poor.





Sensible, sensitive, and always richly informed and appreciative of world history, Amartya Sen’s writing is a joy to read. In his eminently readable book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, he makes the case that many undesirable consequences can result from certain ways in which people may be encouraged to see themselves. Most importantly, a “solitarist” approach to human identity, in which any human being can be seen as a member of only one particular group, usually defined by civilizational or religious divisions (e.g. Muslim, Hindu, Western, or non-Western), is particularly insidious.

Under a solitarist view of identity, rather than being appreciated for all that they are, human beings are crammed into little boxes that are usually not of their own choosing. Thus, while in actuality a person may have several important identities – for instance, as a woman, a mother, a teacher, a vegetarian, a person of African descent, a heterosexual, a supporter of gay and lesbian rights, a Muslim, an avid reader, and so on – the solitarist would claim that only one of those identities is of any importance in understanding that individual. Usually, it would be the fact that she was a Muslim, or that she was racially of African descent that would be used as a basis of a singular, all-encompassing identity.

Using mutually exclusive racial or religious categories as the only basis of understanding human beings is an inherently divisive view and, as Sen puts it, it is “a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world”. By ignoring the many shared identities that cut across the sharp dividing lines of religious or civilizational categorizations, a solitarist view of identity makes it much easier for groups of people to see each other as opponents or enemies, rather than fellow human beings.

Sen gives the example of the Hindu-Muslim riots of the last days of the British Raj, which he witnessed as a child. He points out that while, on one view (the solitarist view), the riots were between Hindus and Muslims, on another, they were between people who were practically indistinguishable. Most of the people who were doing the killing – and being killed – were members of the urban poor; they were day-laborers, they lived in similar neighbourhoods, spoke the same language, and so on. If they had been properly aware of the plural nature of their identities – that each of them was so much more than just a Muslim or a Hindu – and the fact that they had so much in common with one another, it probably would have been impossible to get them to commit such horrific acts.

However, the solitarist view is sometimes extremely hard to resist. And once people fall into its trap, it can lead to disastrous consequences. An acceptance of the idea that the only important defining characteristic of a person is his religion easily gives rise to the view that everyone from a different religious background has to be “the enemy”. It is not hard to see that nearly all of the terrorism in the world today is the result of people being encouraged to see themselves in this way. The 9/11 terrorist attacks are a good example of a solitarist approach being put to use – but not in a Muslim-vs- non-Muslim form, because many of the people killed at the World Trade Centers were, in fact, Muslims. Rather, this was an example of a “West-vs-anti-West” understanding of identity – one that is becoming increasingly popular today.

Apart from the divisiveness between mutually exclusive groups that it encourages, a solitarist view of identity also ignores the wide variation that exists within common categorizations such as “the Muslim world”, or “the Western world”. To claim that a person’s being Muslim is the only important attribute needed to understand him/her in a social context is to ignore the fact that Muslims vary considerably in their ideas, practices and beliefs.

Indeed, one of the most compelling arguments that Sen makes in the book is that the Western response to the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism is thoroughly misguided. This is because it reinforces the solitarist view that the fomenters of terrorism advocate, rather than going against it. In Sen’s own words:

“…In disputing the gross and nasty generalization that members of the Islamic civilization have a belligerent culture, it is common enough to argue that they actually share a culture of peace and goodwill. But this simply replaces one stereotype with another, and furthermore, it involves accepting an implicit presumption that people who happen to be Muslim by religion would basically be similar in other ways as well… The arguments on both sides suffer, in this case from a shared faith in the presumption that seeing people exclusively, or primarily in terms of the religion-based civilizations that they are taken to belong is a good way of understanding human beings.”

The book goes on to explore how views of identity relate to issues such as global democracy and multiculturalism is societies with many different racial and religious minorities. Relating to the latter, Sen makes several more striking points about how Western governments seem to be doing things the wrong way. For instance, in Britain, rather than engaging with people from minority religious communities as citizens of the same country, many efforts are being made to engage with them through their religious representatives. Thus, rather than emphasizing common citizenship, these dialogues focus upon on a particular difference between people living in the same country, and take that difference to be of supreme importance.

The book ends by emphasizing the role that reason has to play in allowing people to choose whether they wish to associate themselves with any particular identity, and to assigning relative importance to their many different identities in different situations.

“Philosophy isn’t practical, like growing food or building houses, so people say it is useless. In one sense those basic tasks are much more important, it’s true, because we couldn’t live without them… We eat to live, but we live to think. And also to fall in love, play games and listen to music, of course. Remember that the practical things are only about freeing us up to live: they’re not the point of life.”

That’s from If Minds Had Toes, by Lucy Eyre. It’s a wonderful book that works as a sort of advertising campaign for the subject of philosophy (which, let’s face it, is dismissed as a waste of time by a whole lot of people) while also being funny, imaginative and intensely thought-provoking. I wouldn’t quite rate it RREHR, but perhaps just a notch lower, as EM-BGIB: Educated Minds should have a Basic Grasp of the Ideas in this Book… Yeah, that’s not catching on, is it?

'If Minds Had Toes' a simply-written, but intriguing tale of a 15 year-old's introduction to the lofty ideas of philosophy

Anyway, quick summary: Socrates and Ludwig Wittgenstein – two giants of philosophy – are having an argument about whether knowing something about philosophy can actually make people happier. They decide to settle the matter with an experiment; they spend a few weeks guiding a fifteen-year-old boy, Ben, through the world of philosophy. Ben is introduced to timeless philosophical questions such as “Does the evidence of our eyes really tell us about the true nature of the world?” and “Is free will an illusion?”. And even though at first he would rather think about girls and football than that sort of thing, in the end, he does come away as a changed  person and has a new perspective on life. Socrates wins the bet and the “bad guy” Wittgenstein goes back to sulk in a corner somewhere.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), the bad boy of philosophy

In order to summarize one of the most interesting ideas expounded in the book, I decided to write a (short and inelegant) play. Here it is:

“What Am I”

A Short Play

Individual A: Hi there! I just wanted to ask you a simple question. What are you?

Individual B: Um, hey. You again. Well, since I know you’re not gonna leave me alone before I answer your stupid question – I’m a human being.

Individual A: But that doesn’t answer my question. That just places you in a category. It doesn’t tell me what you are. If I were an alien from outer space, who’d never even heard of Earth, do you think “I’m a human being” would tell me anything useful?

Individual B: Ugh. Fine. [Gestures towards himself/herself] This body, and everything in it, is me.

Individual A: [grabs B’s finger] What about this? Is this you?

Individual B: Sure, why not?

Individual A: So if I cut this off and sent it to France, would you say you had gone to France?

Individual B: Damn it, no! Only my whole body is me!

Individual A: So amputees aren’t complete human beings?

Individual B: Er, no, that’s not what I meant to say.

Individual A: Of course not. Let’s say you meant to say that your body is something very closely associated with you, but it’s not you. The most fundamental part of what you are is the part that you would recognize as you even in complete isolation. That’s why you wouldn’t consider a recently-dead corpse of your body to be you. So what about the stuff that’s in the particular part of your body that you call the brain? Your memories and experiences – are they what makes you you?

Individual B: [a little more interested now] Yeah, I guess that could be it. That must be it, right?

Individual A: Sorry, no, I don’t think so. We’re in murkier territory now, but I really don’t think it would be impossible to upload all your sensory and emotional data on to a computer’s hard disk (even if not now, in a decade or two). But that wouldn’t mean that you would become the computer, or that there’d be two yous.

Individual B: But, then…What the hell am I?… All that’s left is… I must have a non-physical, supernatural soul

Individual A: Thankfully, there’s a way to avoid that. But it’s not easy to grasp. You are not simply your past and your present, but also your future. You are a continuous event that spans a certain time period. This continuous event is made up of lots of little experiences. Even at the moment you are born, the experiences just before your death are a part of you. You are a pan-dimensional being, because your self-awareness transcends space and time.

Individual B: Whoaa. That is so cool. Philosophy rocks!

[Hugs and high-fives ensue…]

–The End–

I wonder if I’ve ever been as hooked by anyone’s writing within about ten pages as I was when I just got into Arundhati Roy’s The End of Imagination (Included in the collection The Algebra of Infinite Justice). It’s brilliantly written and makes a cogent case against nuclear weapons. Having been born a few decades too late, I never really witnessed the anti-nuclear movement in full force. For the first time, I think I am suitably horror-struck by the knowledge of what nuclear weapons truly are.

Somehow it never really struck me that it was horribly wrong for the United States to have detonated nuclear bombs in the hope of getting Japan out of World War II. Let’s say two families, the As and the Bs are engaged in a century-long vendetta that’s claimed dozens of lives and caused immense  suffering. Let’s say family A realizes that if they kidnap the head of B’s newborn son and subject the infant to the most twisted forms of torture they can come up with, B will be horrified enough to abandon the vendetta forever. Does this make it right – or in any way excusable – for them to do that?

Although on the whole I really liked the essay, there are two points with which I do have issues. The first concerns the following passage, which describes Western society:

“These are people whose histories are spongy with the blood of others. Colonialism, apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, germ warfare, chemical weapons – they virtually invented it all.”

Here’s the thing – I don’t like it when people seem to imply that the people of the East lived in some kind of idyllic Heaven on Earth before the West came along. The Arabs were avid traders of slaves, and the practice of slavery was nearly as common in the Chinese, Japanese, and North African kingdoms as anywhere in the West.

(And in case you’ve never heard of white slaves, I strongly recommend you visit this link:

White female slave captured by the Barbary Corsairs (see link above)

As for apartheid, how much older is the Hindu caste system? And how is it any better? And finally, just because empire-builders in the East (Genghis Khan, for instance, or the Mughals) did not build empires as large, or as recently as the Western nations did does not mean that the peoples of the East are inherently and universally quiet, non-materialistic, peace-loving creatures.

My second problem is with the following:

“…we embrace the most diabolic creation of Western science [i.e. the nuclear bomb] and call it our own.”

This is a fervent request to everyone reading this: please don’t use terms like “Western science”. There’s only one way of doing science. It’s called the scientific method; it involves principles such as experimentation, observation, and accurate prediction, repeatability, openness, etc. Nobody can own any part of the scientific method and there are no separate Eastern and Western versions of it. (Any body of “knowledge”  that is not built upon the scientific method – e.g. astrology, voodoo, homeopathy, feng shui, etc – is not science.)

Having said that, it is, of course, true that nuclear bombs were invented by Western scientists, and that Eastern scientists may never have done something like that if they were in the same position. So call them a “Western invention” if you will. That’s fine.

An illustration from the second edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1483

Sometimes the wide range of things that I manage to find interesting surprises even me. Regular readers of this blog – including Batman, Dracula, Cinderella, and several other seriously non-imaginary people – may even realize that the name of the blog was chosen because of my interest in humanity as a whole, and all of the inconsequential little things that humans get up to (Cf. “About this Blog).

For no good reason, I’m currently reading The Norton Anthology of English Literature (“Revised Edition”; but seriously, has that ever induced anyone to buy a second copy of the same book? Would anyone notice if they branded the first printed edition of the book that way? ). I’m barely two hundred pages into the 1900+ page tome, but already I’m having a lot of fun.

Right now, I’m reading The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400). Chaucer’s lively narration shines especially bright in comparison to the grave, dignified prose of Beowulf, which preceded it in the book. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re willing to take Beowulf on its own terms – a mental exercise that mainly entails picturing very big, hairy, well-armed and belligerent Vikings (it was written in the 8th century AD) listening around a roaring fire as one of their elders intones the lines of the poem – it’s a marvelous work. But there’s something much more human about Chaucer’s wit, his impudence, and his use of believable characters.

As an example, I’ve included a few lines in italics below. They’re all from “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, which might be considered as one of the “chapters” of The Canterbury Tales. And in case you didn’t know, the language that Chaucer wrote in wasn’t quite the one of modern English-speakers; it’s now known as Middle English. It came into use after the Norman Conquest of England (1066 AD) and was replaced by Early Modern English mainly in the Elizabethan Era (1558 – 1603), the time of Shakespeare.  Old English – the language in which Beowulf was written – is a bit of a misnomer, because, trust me, it’s nothing like English.

I think you don’t really get the feel of Chaucer’s work unless you read it in his language, so I’ve given the lines first in Middle English, then included a Modern English translation as well. The Canterbury Tales were composed in rhyming couplets and in iambic pentameter; what that means is that generally, each line is supposed to have five stressed syllables, and the endings always rhyme. And without going into any technical details, here’s a quick tip on how to pronounce the words: with a heavily exaggerated Scottish accent. Anyway, give it a shot:

“For hadde God commanded maidenhede,

Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the deede;

And certes, if there were no seed ysowe,

Virginitee, thane whereof sholde it growe?”

And in Modern English:

“For if God had commanded maidenhood [it means ‘virginity’ here]

Then with that same word had he condemned marrying.

And certainly, if no seed were sown,

From where then should virgins spring?”

And to further translate into vernacular, here’s what those last two lines mean: “God can’t have been that fond of virgins, because where are virgins supposed to come from unless – well, unless people lose their virginity once in a while?” The irony is delicious.

There’s one vital fact that you must keep in mind when considering those lines: they were written at the height of the Catholic Church’s dominion over the Western world. And yet Chaucer had the audacity to use a female character – the eponymous “Wife of Bath” – to poke fun at Christian doctrine, making her unapologetically challenge several commonly held preconceptions about women.

And here’s another pair of lines that would have gained the approval of some Medieval Barney Stinson:

“In womman vinolent is no defence –

This knowen lechours [lechers] by experience”

Here’s a (rough) translation of that: “As every player knows, a drunk chick can’t say no.”

And finally, here’s another part that I really liked:

“Of alle men yblessed mote [may] he be

The wise astrologen [astrologer] daun [master] Ptolemy,

That saith this proverb in his Almageste:

‘Of alle men his wisdom is the hyeste [highest]

That rekketh [cares] nat who hath the world in honde [hand].”

Those lines translate to:

“May he be blessed of all men,

That wise astrologer, Sir Ptolemy,

Who says this proverb in his book Almagest,

‘Of all men, he who never cares who has the world in hand

Has the greatest wisdom.’”

I can’t help but feel that there’s Deep Truth in those last two lines. In fact, they’re going on The Folly of Human Conceits’ “Memorable Words” page.

Proposed Roads to Freedom (the name that publishers in America chose for the book)

Sometimes I think it may not be such a bad idea to emulate the MPAA’s film rating system (responsible for the familiar ratings G, PG, PG-13, etc) in creating a rating system to indicate the quality and importance of books. If I were asked to do that, and to rate “Roads to Freedom” using my system, I would put it at the top of the scale, with the (somewhat awkward) rating of “RREHR”- Required Reading for the Entire Human Race.

I don’t doubt that many will meet the ideas developed in the book with a great deal of scepticism. I can almost hear people turning over the last page and complaining that it was all just Utopian daydreaming, with no relevance to real life and real human beings. And then they’ll roll their eyes and say, “But that’s what philosophers are for, I guess. I mean, it’s not like they have anything more useful to do, is it?” A smaller- but probably still quite significant- number of people may not even agree in spirit with Russell’s ideas, either because they feel that the status quo is preferable, or because they harbour their own alternative visions for humanity.

Regardless, I believe that it’s nearly impossible to get through “Roads to Freedom” without once stopping to think about the human condition. And that’s why it’s such an important book. Because it will force its readers to think about the ways in which human beings organize themselves into societies, and to assess the merits of those societies. It asks its readers to momentarily substitute their thoughts of personal happiness with thoughts about the possibility of collective happiness for all of humanity. And thoughts like that have the power to change the world for the better.

Central to the book’s subject matter is an indictment of two major institutions that are ubiquitous in the modern world. The first of these is Capitalism. If you’re familiar with that other very famous indictment of capitalism, “The Communist Manifesto”, you’ll find that Russell’s analysis, in contrast to Marx’s, is completely lacking in fire and brimstone. With equanimity and candour, he sets down his thoughts on the failings of capitalism, and details the most popular alternatives that were advocated at the time. These alternatives were: Socialism, Anarchism, Syndicalism, and Guild Socialism. He explains the basic tenets of these socio-economic systems, and gives brief, but informative details on the lives of their most important proponents. These include Marx (Socialism), Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin (Anarchism), Georges Sorel (Syndicalism) and G.D.H. Cole (Guild Socialism).

In assessing the worlds that could come about as a result of the adoption of one of the alternative systems to Capitalism, Russell makes judgements partly upon how much power they give to the other modern institution that he regards with suspicion: the State. It’s important to realize that the State, here, does not refer to quite the same thing as “government” in the general sense. “Government” is an aim, whereas “the State” is a means to that aim.

Russell’s final conclusion is that unless human instincts change significantly, Anarchism’s complete abolition of the State would lead to an unstable society, whereas State Socialism’s complete trust in the State would lead to disaster (an analysis that could be said to have been borne out by the collapse of the Soviet Union).[i] Syndicalists, too, propose abolishing the State, but they hand over so much of the State’s former responsibilities to governing trade unions that they are, in effect, creating a State under another name. It is only Guild Socialism, with its cooperative framework of a minimal State and a separate federation of trade unions that has a chance of being both stable and amenable to collective human wellbeing.

The final chapter of the book- “The World as It Could Be Made”- is, fittingly, the most inspiring. In it, Russell sets out his own version of Guild Socialism in satisfying detail. Of course, it’s not as though every question you could ask about this vision is answered here, but there is probably enough detail to convince a lot of people that this is a workable system.

As you read, you may notice that many of the contentions made in the book are basically Russell’s opinions, and are presented without supporting evidence. This is not to be regarded as a weakness, because the purpose of the book is not to inculcate facts, but to guide sceptical thought about human relations. I seriously doubt that Russell would prefer unquestioning acceptance of his ideas to healthy intellectual scepticism. Here’s an example of one of those normative passages that had the potential to be particularly controversial when the book was published, in 1917:

“If the European States became Socialistic, and refused, under a Quixotic impulse, to enrich themselves at the expense of the defenseless inhabitants of Africa, those inhabitants would not thereby gain; on the contrary, they would lose, for they would be handed over to the tender mercies of individual traders, operating with armies of reprobate bravos, and committing every atrocity to which the civilized barbarian is prone. The European governments cannot divest themselves of responsibility in regard to Africa. They must govern there, and the best that can be hoped is that they should govern with a minimum of cruelty and rapacity.”

One final note: there was one thing I that I didn’t really like about Russell’s version of Guild Socialism. He proposes that something very like the patent system in Capitalism may need to be held on to in order to preserve the incentive for technological progress in industry and science. I really don’t see why this is necessary. The question of whether anyone would do any useful work in the first place is quite ably tackled in his analysis, and I don’t really think this question- technological innovation- is really a separate question at all; if there are people willing to work in a collectivist society, there will be people willing (and eager) to engage in scientific and technological advancement of the civilization.

Russell states that the industry that comes up with a new technology should be allowed exclusive use of it for a few years before it is allowed to spread to the rest of the community. It struck me that this might be a great loss for consumers. Perhaps I’m not conceiving the issue in quite the right way, but here’s the analogy that came to my mind: if automobile companies were given the exclusive right to build seatbelts into their products for a few years after they’d invented them, wouldn’t that be a loss to airline passengers who could also have benefited from the new technology?[ii] Without question, it would be a much greater loss if no one had any incentive to create sucah an innovation; but again, I don’t think that this neo-patent system is necessary to create that incentive.

Anyways, you decide what you want to think. If anyone would like to read “Roads to Freedom”, but can’t find a copy, I suggest going to Pennsylvania State University’s Electronic Classics Site for a PDF version of the book. It’s not a particularly pretty site, but it’s got a lot of good books. Here’s the link:

[i]Note that State Socialism is not the only kind of Socialism, and it is probably not what Marx envisioned as the ultimate realization of the Socialist ideal.

[ii] I am quite unaware of how accurately this analogy might reflect actual history. I’m pretty sure that it was the automobile industry that first made use of seatbelts, but I’m not sure there even were commercial airlines at the time. Nonetheless, I think the point of the analogy should still get across quite well.