2003

So, I was at Homerton the other day and went along to a cafe type-o-thing run by the Christian Union. Ended up talking to someone we shall call Bob (disclaimer: Bob may not actually be called Bob), who asked me about my time at university. We chatted a bit. And then he threw in one of those good conversation starters: “So, was there a Christian Union at Churchill while you were there?” Zoiks.

FADE IN:

EXT. ENTERPRISE, RUSHING STARS

ENTERPRISE: [deep bass rumbling noise]

A shimmering patch of space appears behind ENTERPRISE. It resolves itself into a hideously beweaponed ship, shaped somewhere between a cross and a sword.

INT. BRIDGE

WORF: Evangelical Alliance Bird of Pray de-cloaking off the port bow.

TROI: Sir, I'm sensing... moral outrage.

WORF: They are charging weapons! Targetting overseas students and people with low self-esteem.

PICARD: Red Alert! Raise shields, arm photon torpedoes.

DIVERS ALARUMS

<lj-cut text=”OPENING CREDITS”> I’m exaggerating, it was all very civilised. Bob was friendly and terribly apologetic (ba-da-boom!) about asking personal questions, something which no longer bothers me since I stopped being embarrassed about what’s happened to me. I explained that I was in that very CU at Churchill but left church a few years after leaving university, as I felt there wasn’t much evidence for what I believed.

Bob asked what I thought of Romans 1, where the Apostle Paul says that people are without excuse for their disbelief, since God’s nature is clearly seen in creation. I’ve come across that argument before, and my response was the same as it was back then. Writing in the 1st century AD, St Paul has no better explanation for creation than that it was God what dunnit. As science provides progressively more powerful explanations, it is no longer self-evident that there’s a creator. It’s not clear what we can learn of the creator’s nature, either, other than that God is a mathematician with an inordinate fondness for beetles. Arguments from creation mean you end up with a God of the Gaps.

We then talked about the rest of the Romans 1 passage. I’m not sure I correctly understood Bob here. He seemed to be saying that because St Paul says that there will be unbelievers, the existence of these unbelievers shows that validity of Paul’s argument. That seems to boil down to “people disagree with Paul, he predicted this, therefore he’s right”. Putting on my (somewhat tattered) evangelical hermeneutics hat, it’s not what the passage is about, either. Paul’s not using all the moral outrage at the end of chapter 1 to demonstrate his own acute observational skills, which then also allow us to trust him when God-spotting, but rather, he writes to people who already believe in God but need convincing of their own sinfulness, as chapter 2 shows.

We went on to talk about what I thought about the historical claims made by Christianity, especially the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I said I wasn’t really sure what I thought about that, but it was a bit hard to chose between the stories of how God intersected history which are found in most theistic religions. Since Judaism is a bit of a special case to Christians, I chose Islam as my example. Bob argued that early Muslims didn’t have to die for their faith, but rather, in line with soldiers everywhere, they were keen on the idea that the other fella should die for his. But again, having people willing to die for a religion is not something special to Christianity. Throughout history, some people have been willing to die for the strangest of things.

Bob was curious to know what I thought of Jesus. I said that the Jesus of the Gospels was still an attractive figure, although he does say some odd things which make me wonder about the church’s later decision to convert Gentiles (Peter and James seem to have had similar qualms, of course). However, the God of the Old Testament seems somewhat nasty at times, especially if one is taught to regard the OT as pretty much an accurate description of what happened. At this point, either Bob mentioned C.S. Lewis’s “Mad/Bad/God” trilemma or I pre-empted it. I talked about Andrew Rilstone’s taking to task of Christian evangelists like Josh McDowell, who want to use the trilemma as a proof of Christianity. Lewis’s own ambitions are smaller: he merely uses it to argue against the watered down version of Christianity (perhaps more popular when people in this country would claim to be “C of E” for the sake of respectability) which states that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God. Bob owned that he was sometimes disturbed by the pat arguments of some Christian apologetics, especially those which seem intellectually dishonest.

This lead on to thinking about arguments in general. I made the not very original point that what you consider to be supporting evidence depends on where you stand to start with, and mentioned the phrase “paradigm shift” for good measure. Arguments won’t win someone to a religion (or away from it). I’m not sure what else is in the mix, but I know that despite the evangelical desire to maintain the notion of absolute truth and push messy emotions aside, eventually, feelings will have their say. As the discussion became more personal, I said that, as well as the lack of evidence, I also left because of how Christianity made me feel.

That’s why, even though Christianity seems logically inconsistent to me, I sometimes say that if I had started off somewhere less brittle, my faith might have flexed rather than broken. After all, we tolerate inconsistency elsewhere in life, building up the a selection of Swiss Army notions we find useful in certain places, a Heath Robinson mechanism where the edges don’t fit together and are joined with string and sealing wax. We might even share bits of it with friends. Though the actions of some Christians (not Bob, of course, who was unfailingly polite) draw me towards fire breathing atheism, I wouldn’t like to rule out going back to some sort of faith one day. Embarrassing U-turns are becoming my forte. But it’d have to be a form of faith which is conscious of where the edges don’t join up.

So, it’d better not hide the rough edges beneath a shiny surface of facts and faith and pat answers. It’d better not claim to be the only way to the truth. It’d better not be entirely dedicated to enlarging itself, to the power and the glory. It’d better not try to order every aspect of other people’s lives for them (however much some of them so want to be ordered), sending forth alternate waves of joy and guilt until they’re assimilated. I claim that the only moral response on encountering such a jumped up, runaway machine is to go straight to its major databanks with a very large axe and give it a reprogramming it will never forget.

Danny O’Brien of NTK writes about the mixing of public, private and secret conversations which occurs on the web. It’s in reaction to yet another “look, these people are sad” article in The Register, but it goes on to say some interesting things:

My God, people say, how can Livejournallers be so self-obsessed? Oh, Christ, is Xeni talking about LA art again? Why won’t they all shut up?

The answer why they won’t shut up is – they’re not talking to you. They’re talking in the private register of blogs, that confidential style between secret-and-public. And you found them via Google. They’re having a bad day. They’re writing for friends who are interested in their hobbies and their life. Meanwhile, you’re standing fifty yards away with a sneer, a telephoto lens and a directional microphone. Who’s obsessed now?

Went to pbolchover‘s Civilisation day on Saturday. It’s an interesting game, though I don’t think I did very well at it. I left my cities to the tender mercies of the other players at about 4 pm, so I could make my way to London.

We went to Boisdale for my friend Phil’s birthday. Drove to Docklands and then Tube into London. The new Jubilee line stations look very space age. The food was excellent and the service was good too. The restaurant itself was cosy. There was live jazz, too. We did not have the 10 grand Nebuchadnezzar of wine, despite it being on the wine list, as wasn’t carrying small change. Return was delayed slightly by battery problems with S’s car, so went back to Phil’s and read Private Eye for a bit while waiting for breakdown people. Best “Eye Need” ad: “Give me money, I deserve it! Acct xxxxxxx, sort xx-xx-xx”. Best crossword clue: “Obviously gay passion started by boy scouts rubbing (4,4)”.

Eventually got back to Cam at 4 am. Slept much of Sunday. Went to the Cambridge Blue with PauB, DavidB and the Monday night crew last night (decided the Blue was preferable to the Hopbine as it’s non-smoking). Apparently Marcel has started his own dancing society. It’s beginners only, classes are more expensive but there’s no up front membership charge. Much speculation about what the “ladies only” night was in aid of. Can’t really see it affecting CDC that much, but we’ll see I suppose.

There’s something nasty out there, changing the DNS settings of Windows machines to point at what look like a couple of Linux boxes on some US hosting service. Best guess is that it’s down to another fricking Windows exploit, one that seems to work via a web page which downloads an executable, which runs itself to change your DNS settings, and then deletes itself. It got me during my lunchtime surf at work, and it seems other people have seen it too. Check your DNS settings before you next use Internet banking, or face the Man in the Middle. Praise Bill!

(I always thought it’d be cool to have a LiveWires course on exploits, as the kids were always keen on Internet stuff: In this worksheet, you will own a poorly configured IIS server, changing the site’s front page to the message “Je5u5 0wnz j00: ph43r G0d”.)

In other news, the dear old Church of England (in fact, the Anglican communion) looks set to split on the gay issue, what with a big meeting of bishops coming up and much sabre rattling on both sides. Bit of a shame, as I can’t help feeling some affection for the old thing, although I suspect that a split church is just what many evangelicals (such as our old friends Reform) are looking for. (Really must get round to responding to livredor‘s latest on that thread, too).

I confess that I underestimated the enemy rather badly. I underestimated both the enemy’s level of sophistication, and also the enemy’s level of brute malevolence. I always knew that spammers had no principals and no ethics, but up until recently, I had no idea that they could or would stoop this low, or that they would engage in quite this level of criminality. I guess that, naively, I just never thought hard enough about how much money was actually at stake (in the spamming trade) or what that might mean in terms or the determination of spammers to win at all costs.

Ron F. Guilmette announced that he was giving up the fight against spam in the face of massive Distribued Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. This, in the wake of the attacks which forced Joe Jared off the net, is rather worrying.

<lj-cut> Ron maintained a list of open proxies. When you connect your home or company private network to the Intarweb, and mess up (or install something which is insecure by default), you can arrange matters so that anyone can use your proxy as a convenient way to make themselves anonymous, since their activity appears to originate from the proxy. Whether it’s spamming, or merely making a nuisance of yourself on talkers and the like, open proxies are favoured by asshats everywhere. Ron was also running a network of honeypots, servers which pretend to be open proxies but which are actually gathering the real addresses of those responsible for abuse.

Joe Jared was the main distributor of the SPEWS list, a controversial blacklist of ISPs who, in the view of the anonymous list maintainers, weren’t doing enough to get rid of their spammers.

The lists, so called DNS Blackhole Lists or DNSBLs, were available published using the DNS, the name service which turns domain names (like www.livejournal.com) into IP addresses (like 66.150.15.150). Most of the big unix mail servers, such as Sendmail or Exim, can use these sorts of lists to refuse connections, or to tag mail as suspect. Even if your server administrator isn’t using blacklists, home users can also make use of DNSBLs using James Farmer’s Spampal program.

Guilmette and Jared probably overextended themselves by running these services from DSL or cable connections. The big boys are getting DDoS’d but their lists are still being published (even if the website isn’t doing so well). There are other proxy lists out there. So, what’s the worry?

I suppose, like Ron Guilmette, I’m surprised at such outright criminality. It makes me wonder who’s next on the list of targets. DNSBLs make particularly popular targets, but what about distributors of spam filtering software, say? One could say that these are the acts of desperate individuals, running scared of anti-spam efforts, but possibly this is the end point of the evolutionary arms race against spammers: many of them have gone to the wall, but the ones who are left are nastier than your average spammer was a few years ago.

People on news.admin.net-abuse.email are already talking about peer-to-peer systems to make a big easy target into lots of small, hard to hit targets (but geeks love to talk about distributed systems and crypto, so who knows whether it’ll go anywhere). Meanwhile, the old mantra about how you shouldn’t fight abuse with abuse is sounding less and less convincing.

Not been posting lately. It’s been a busy few weeks.

<lj-cut text=”Barcelona was excellent.”> Barcelona was lovely. I’d like to add to Terrie and Lise’s rhapsodising about it.

September turned out to be a good time to go. It wasn’t too hot, but we mostly had sun, despite the occasional downpour.

The food and wine were great. Had tapas a few times. Tried Les Quinze Nits, which I think turned out to be the best evening meal we had, and reasonably priced too. Watching the chap in one bar pouring cider from over his head into the glass (to aerate it) was fun too.

Barcelona is a beautiful city, full of tree lined avenues and squares. The Sagrada Familia, the cathedral by Gaudi, was magnificent even in its unfinished state, with detailed carvings all over the place. There’s a good view from the towers, too. I wandered up to the north of where we were staying, into the Gracia district, and found what looked like another Gaudi building, too.

We had a day trip to Montserrat, a monastery on the side of a mountain. Rode a cable car to get to the place, and took a funicular to near the top. Another spectacular view, although I kept well away from the edge 🙂

People are friendly, public transport works, and there’s lots to see. Thanks to Lise and Terrie for organising it.

It’s a shame to be back at work again. Sigh. No big plans for the coming weeks, although I’m sure something will turn up.

Andrew Brown linked to an article about homosexuality from a Texas preacher. It’s not what you think. In fact, it’s great.

Real Live Preacher, as he calls himself, writes honestly and writes well. So, I sat and read the whole site, archives and all. I cannot help but think that, had someone like this been around when I was beginning to realise that I couldn’t stay in my church, things might have been different.

The Preacher’s life story had some echoes with me. That said, for me there was no great event in my life which was the final straw, no example of human suffering which finally showed that there could not be a good God running it all; instead there was just the drip, drip, drip of guilt and doubt, eventually wearing me down.

The Preacher came back to his faith by deciding that “faith is something you do, not something you think. In fact, the greater your doubt the more heroic your faith.” He decided to gamble his life, living in faithfulness to God, without really knowing or caring whether God existed:

I pushed all my chips across the table. The preacher bet it all. Why? Because the idea that there is a God who cares for us busts my heart wide open. Because I pushed reason as far as it can go but I wanted to go farther still. Because I wanted to, and… well… I just wanted to.

I can’t follow him where he’s gone, but I can’t help but admire him.

shreena‘s posting about how Tony Blair may allow “faith groups” a role in policy making has lead me into an interesting discussion, touching on evangelical pressure groups, inerrancy, Total Depravity, and, of course, gay bishops. Just got round to posting another thing to it, which is why I mention it.

Punting out to Grantchester on Saturday night was hard in the heat, so the other PaulW ended up doing most of the work. I think he’s got a much more efficient style, as I was splashing more. Punting back in the dark was enlivened by low branches. As we were returning, we also saw some youfs wandering along the Meadows looking for some sort of rave thing that was supposed to be happening, but heard no repetitive beats.

Still too hot, although aircon is working here at the moment. Dancing tonight should be interesting.

Via Cogito, Ergo Sumana comes advice from Salon’s relationships guru (go for their “free day pass” to read it), directed at a woman who is tired of blokes not saying what they mean. In his response, the woman is advised to date an engineer. This is an excellent plan, as Scott Adams well knew. The problem is that we engineers can be a little too honest for some people: but still, for that reader, it sounds like the columnist gave the right advice.

Dancing last night was ridiculously hot. I brought a change of shirt for going to the pub afterwards, which was lucky as the other one was wringing wet by the end of it. Yuck. I think I’ve just about mastered the new jive and waltz bits now.