March 2004

“Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your Deity made you in his own image, I reply that he must have been very ugly.” -Victor Hugo

I’ve been emailing one of my Christunfrends on the subject of hell. Hell is the dark underbelly of orthodox Christian belief. Christians are, with some notable exceptions, a nice bunch. Remember the natives of the planet Krikkit? In Life, the Universe and Everything they believe in “peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life, and the obliteration of all other life forms.” As I’ve said before, evangelicals are sometimes a bit like that. Only instead of the obliteration of all other life forms, we have the eternal conscious torment of non-believers in Hell (annihilationism being viewed as suspiciously liberal by people like Reform).

<lj-cut> When I was a Christian, if asked, I’d have said that my non-Christian friends were going to Hell. But, like my correspondant, I’d not really faced what that meant. Most Christians consider Medieval pictures of fire and pitchforks a little passé these days, but regardless of that, Hell is conceived by Christians as the total absence of anything good. Choose your own favourite candidate for the worst thing that’s ever happened, and it’s worse than that. Forever.

The justification for an infinite punishment for a finite crime is supposedly that it’s not really a finite crime at all. God is so perfect that the smallest offence against him is as bad as the largest. Or he’s so good that nothing sinful can come into his presence. The latter explanation of the mechanics of damnation absolves God of personal involvement in sending people to Hell, as it’s logical necessity which means that nobody can join God in heaven without the aid of Jesus.

My friend, and presumably other Christians, respond to the thought that their friends are damned with gratitude that Christians are saved, and also with an increased zeal for evangelism. What’s missing from this is a question about how their friends’ fate can possibly be just. If the latter explanation is true, why does God sustain consciousness in the damned? And if he doesn’t deliberately sustain it, why are the damned conscious, as we’re told that in him we live and move and have our being?

And if the former explanation is true, why is he so goddamned tetchy? We have Christians who are supposed to be longsuffering, patient and kind, serving a God who is second to none in his sociopathic perfectionism (“Using an adaption of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, or otherwise, prove this statement about God is true. [20 marks]”). As Terry Pratchett points out in Small Gods, the prophets are better than the gods they serve.

I was attempting to understand how someone can thank God for salvation in the face of the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that Christians just haven’t thought about it very much. That was my experience. As Andrew Rilstone writes about another unpalatable evangelical belief, the fact that my nonchristunfrends were going to hell was just “one of the three impossible things you had to believe before breakfast in order to hang out with a nice group of people, sing songs and occasionally get a faith-based-buzz”.

The other explanation is somewhat darker. If a Christian honestly faces the reality of hell and thanks God anyway, my impression is that it’s rather like the Stockholm Syndrome, where people who are kidnapped, held hostage or otherwise placed under extreme duress come to love their captors and thank them for any small act of kindness (I’m not the first to have come up with this idea, of course).

S (who, ironically, usually plays God’s Advocate in these discussions 🙂 points out that the true history of the Stockholm bank robbery doesn’t reflect the Stockholm Syndrome as described, and that accusing someone of suffering from the syndrome is a convenient way of dissing your political opponents. I suppose the penultimate paragraph of this article is what I’m talking about. Call it what you like, but, as alluded to by the paragraph beginning “I trust my master”, “Normally, when people say things like ‘You are His possession, he can do whatever He likes with you’, the next sentence is ‘What is the safety word?'” (quote from Steven Carr in uk.religion.christian. I must say I rather like Gareth’s response. And don’t look so innocent, you’ve been around LiveJournal for long enough now.)

Alas, if these Christians are right, this is not a game and there’s no way out. I might be vainglorious, but I’d prefer the Miltonesque “Satan” over such a God any day.

Speaking of which, The Torygraph has a transcript of a discussion between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Williams is a counterweight to the sort of Christianity which makes me glad I left the church. Perhaps there’s hope for us all yet.

CDC Ball was OK, although a bit flat compared to some previous ones. Various LJ folk have mentioned the lack of things like the snowball waltz (where you start with one couple, stop the music, they pick new partners, and it starts again), or the elimination waltz (“leave the floor if you’ve seen Strictly Ballroom more than three times and are not wearing a real bow tie”), which I agree was a bit of a shame. However, the demo couple were excellent, and there was no shortage of people to dance with.

I went back to Churchill on Friday, to exercise my dining rights. Many of the old gang went. It was all very civilised: disappointingly, there were no undergraduates in Hall and no Pav. Instead, there was an after dinner talk on the democritisation of the British Museum, which was pretty interesting, although some philistines in our party ducked out to go to the bar instead.

My friend Nathan Barley (Nathan Barley may not actually be called Nathan Barley), from London, was asking me about losing my religion, and in particular whether I was bitter about it all. I am, a little. Some days more than others, of course, like when I encounter some particular stupidity perpetrated in the name of Christianity, or when I think back to how much time I wasted worrying about being a good Christian. It’s hard enough being a nervous intellectual at university without that to worry about as well. We also mentioned the community aspect of religion. Nathan reckonned that it wasn’t worth having people following an illusion just to maintain a community, but with the increasing fragmentation of society, I wasn’t so sure.

In other exciting news, Come Dancing is set to return to our TV screens in a prime-time slot (fronted by a still-not-dead-yet Bruce Forsyth). I wonder if it’ll cause an upsurge of interest in ballroom, like Strictly Ballroom did.

Kevin S. Wilson writes in NANAE:

You just don’t get it, do you? WE ARE PISSED, VENGEFUL, AND UNSYMPATHETIC. You helped to create the mess that e-mail has become, invading the privacy of millions of people and generally making an annoyance of yourself on a GLOBAL scale. Ultimately, you may have helped to render e-mail unuseable. You think anyone cares that you can’t find hosting for a vanity domain? Instead of looking for sympathy here, you ought to be thanking your lucky stars that someone sick of your spam hasn’t hunted you down and broken your arms, or worse.

I’m sure we all feel that way some days. (If ASR is the scary devil monastery, what does that make NANAE, I wonder?)

In other good news, Microsoft, AOL, Earthlink and Yahoo are going after some of the most prolific spammers. A quick look at the example emails in the lawsuit documents shows that many of the obvious suspects are in the frame. They’re filed against “John Doe” (the US legal equivalent of “John Smith”) as this allows the plaintiffs to get ISPs and other organisations to disclose the identities of the people behind the spam, but the targets here are well chosen, so I think the plaintiffs know who they expect to end up bankrupting. The mills of justice grind slowly, but we may hope they grind exceeding small.

There is a conspiracy theory which says this is just large commercial interests getting the porn’n’pills people out of the way, leaving the field clear for mainsleaze. Even if this is the plan of people like Microsoft, there are strategies in place for dealing with spamming from mainstream companies. Such companies can’t afford to use the deceptive and criminal tactics of the worst spammers, so blacklists and bulk email detectors like the DCC should see them off.

I am sick, although I’m getting better. Possibly I was brought low by a moody pistaccio nut at PaulB’s board games thing on Sunday, or possibly I caught whatever S has had recently (although the effects seem to have been more spectacularly gastrointestinal in my case). Today I am moving about slowly, eating digestive biscuits and soup, and geeking out.

My web wanderings turned up Corey Doctorow’s notes on Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks, a talk at some uber-geek conference or other, given by Danny O’Brien of NTK notoriety. Nice quote from Python BDFL Guido van Rossum: “My 10-line python scripts are just like everyone else’s except I wrote a script to interpret them.”

I must be on track to becoming an Alpha Geek, because I have a TODO.txt file myself (actually, it’s just called TODO, putting me a cut above you Windows-using geeks).

Interesting statistic from bradfitz, too: 8 LiveJournal entries every 10 minutes are private, that is, locked to the poster only. Who’s posting these? What sorts of things are you writing in them?

In other news, Paul Vixie wrote a message to the DCC mailing list which nicely summarises my attitude to NTL (he’s actually writing about RoadRunner’s spamming problems, but NTL’s reliability problems with mail and news seem to have a similar solution).

When you get your shiny new cable modem, you usually configure your mail program to send email via your ISP’s server at (or whatever). then sends on your mail to the destination at its leisure (or in NTL‘s case, doesn’t). There was no particular reason why a clever enough computer couldn’t just connect to the destination directly, especially if it’s a computer which is left on most of the time, so that if the destination is down or busy, it can try again later. This is what my computer did. But now lots of servers are blocking mail sent by my machine. This is because of spam.

Know, O King, that the modern porn’n’pills spammer uses open proxies to send email advertising his website. His website is hosted in China or Brazil (Spammy himself is actually a resident of Florida, and the mail originates from his machines in China, but the trail goes cold at the proxy, so it’s hard to prove this). Most of these open proxies are on machines connected to cable modems. Sometimes the proxy has been installed without the owner’s knowledge, perhaps by one of these “virus” things you Outlook users are so keen on. Sometimes, the owner installed the proxy themselves to share their cable connection with a local network, but misconfigured it. Misconfiguration is easy when your chosen software is insecure by design. Marc Thompson, author of the AnalogX proxy, must surely be a prime candidate for first trials of makali and jwz‘s famed audio-cock technology.

But, anyway, the solution adopted by some servers is to block any cable modem (or technically, any machine with a dynamic IP address) from sending them mail directly. That’s why my mail bounces: my IP address is on a list of dynamically allocated IPs. I can advocate that the admins use the Spamhaus XBL instead, since that only lists the addresses of insecure machines. But then someone will point out that my address is right next door to someone who is compromised, and, being a dynamic address space, I could get that address tomorrow.

So, I’m going to start using Gradwell‘s machines to relay my mail (they’ll let me do this as they also host my domain and incoming mail). They’re a lot more clued up than NTL, so their relay machine will probably be up most of the time and will probably ensure my email reaches its destination. But still, it’s a shame. It takes that little bit of control away, as I can only tell when something has left here, not when it’s been finally received. And it breaks something that wouldn’t need to be broken, were it not for those pesky spammers.