2006

Channel 4 recently screened a documentary called God’s Next Army about Patrick Henry College, an evangelical Christian college in America. You can watch it over at Google Video. Why not download it using the Google Video Player thingy so you can still watch it when Channel 4 finds out?

Channel 4 also brought us Richard Dawkins and the Root of all Evil (why not get part 1 and part 2?) God’s Next Army lacks the pugnacious presenter, preferring instead to give the ropefloor to the college’s staff and students. The college aims to produce people who will take part in some sort of Christian version of The West Wing, where the staff of the White House will successfully battle to prevent gay marriage while engaging in snappy but incomprehensible dialogue. Luckily, it seems that evil contains the seeds of its own undoing.

While I was reading Rilstone on Dr Who (I am firmly in the “Fear Her was crap, less soap and more science fiction, please” camp), I ran across Helen Louise, a Christian wrestling with the idea of Hell. She’d linked to The Gobbledygook Gospel, which pretty well describes the dissonance at the heart of the evangelical gospel (but which then goes on to argue that God is like a big friendly dog: it takes all sorts, I suppose).

I also found The Shock of Your Life and downloaded the first chapter, which is about what non-Christians can expect when we die, told in the first person by a non-Christian who is about to be unpleasantly surprised. It’s sort of really bad Christian fan-fiction. The author gets special extra bonus points for juxtaposing a partial quote of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats with an assertion from the narrator’s angelic guide that it’s not what you do that gets you into heaven; unfortunately the partial quote is one that leaves out the bit where Jesus says that it is what you do that gets you into heaven. It’s a good thing that Revelation 22:19 strictly only applies to the Book of Revelation itself, I suppose. One cannot judge the canon (geddit?) by the fan fiction, but I find myself slightly worried that this sort of stuff is being marketed to teenagers. Why can’t they read more wholesome stories about Snape having sex with Hermione instead?

Some of you are apparently riveted by the postings on religion. I’ve not been discussing much on LJ lately, but the monster thread on uk.religion.gjm11 continues, and I’ve been taking part in that.

cathedral_life posted a response to gjm11‘s original announcement, and we got into a discussion about why evangelicalism is often attractive to scientists. We also talk about what I see as the inevitable conflict between science and religion when they both make claims about the physical universe.

There’s also a fair bit of talk from various people about cathedral_life‘s statement that salvation is a corporate rather than individual affair, so much so that she feels individuals don’t have the authority to say they are no longer Christian. (From the thread link, you’ll have to scroll the left frame to see the arrow indicating the point in the thread where cathedral_life posted. Google is a rubbish interface for reading Usenet news, so if you’re really interested in the group, get a proper newsreader.)

I also assert that evangelicalism is like bunnies.

gjm11 is someone I’ve known for years, initially through the uk.religion.christian newsgroup, and then through LiveWires. He’s a very clever man. Since my own loss of faith, I’ve sometimes wondered about the very clever people I know who are Christians (gjm11 among them), and how they manage to sustain their faith in the face of (what I see as) the serious intellectual flaws in Christianity.

Unbeknown to me, gjm11 had been thinking hard about it for a while, and recently announced that he is no longer a Christian. He has an essay on the web where he outlines some of the main reasons for his deconversion. The enormous thread on uk.religion.christian which followed his announcement is, I think, interesting to anyone who wonders about how people get, keep and lose faith.

A common argument from the uk.religion.christians is that the religion is about a personal relationship rather than purely about the truth of Christian doctrine (note that when they say that Christianity is about a relationship, Christians are using a special meaning of the word “relationship” of which you’d not previously been aware). gjm11 points out that although Christianity certainly isn’t just doctrine, if the doctrine cannot hold, the rest collapses. It’s clear that not everyone follows the chain of reasoning to its end in that way, though: some people say, if not in so many words, that even though they know it doesn’t make sense logically, they’re going with it because it feels right.

Wild theorising: I know a number of people who read sciences or mathematics, who came into Christianity through evangelicalism and then left Christianity later. These are people you’d expect to see reason as important. It seems to me that they reasoned themselves in and reasoned themselves out, in some sense: Cambridge’s evangelicalism is modernist in the same way that science is, so it is appealing and satisfying to scientist types. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stand up to logical analysis, so they later reject it for the same reason that they accepted it, and so evangelicalism is hoisted by its own petard.

And so to bed.

Dear Lazyweb

I’d like some sort of house server thingy. scribb1e and I both have laptops, so we’d like somewhere to back-up important stuff. scribb1e has read the Pragmatic Programmer book and would like to keep her life under version control, which I think means Subversion here (not quite as good as Perforce, but free). I have the vague idea that we could connect something to the stereo and play my extensive collection of mp3z through it. We’d like the box to be more or less silent and quite small.

Possible candidates include the Mac Mini and the NSLU2, affectionately known as the Slug. With the Slug, I’d buy a big external drive onto which I would put a proper Linux distribution, as described on the web page. You don’t seem to be able to buy small and quiet server boxes if you don’t want to mess around with ordering the bits and building them yourself, which I don’t.

The Mini’s standard disk size is a bit small, but other than that it certainly does everything we want. However, it’s somewhat pricey for a box we’re not going to use interactively. The Slug is a lot cheaper but will require me to resurrect my Linux-fu (and if I want sound output, get into the sort of horrific kernel nargery that made jwz buy a Mac). I could buy the Slug and some networked other audio output thingy as I’ve heard you can get those these days, but I’ve no experience with them.

This must be a fairly common thing in other geek households. What have the rest of you done?

Mindful of the recent LJ drama about breastfeeding icons, I propose we take LiveJournal’s codebase (which is open source) and start a site where it is compulsory to display breasts in your default icon. That’ll show the Patriarchy! Start using those tools to back up your livejournal now, because titsorleave.com will be live soon.

Another controversial LJ Abuse policy which people are complaining about is that LJ don’t care about comments made in journals which are actually RSS feeds of blogs off-site, because no-one owns the journal. There’s one LJ user whose life’s purpose appears to be to post the word “BOOBIES!!” as a comment to every single entry on popular feeds. apod, a feed of NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, also has the_duke, who always posts “I’ve been there” in response to all the pretty pictures of galaxies and suchlike. The other day, he got the best reply evar.

It would be possible to adapt the web 2.0 technologyTM used by my LJ New Comments script so that you could killfile comments from particular users, I suppose, but I think there’s little motivation to do so while the trolls’ immaturity is less objectionable than the complainants’ huge sense of entitlement.

A couple of shiny new bits of software have come out in the last few weeks. Both of them are at version 7, for some reason.

Inform 7

Inform 7 is the latest version of Inform, the language for creating interactive fiction. The interesting thing about it is that Inform 7 programs are written in a subset of English:

The wood-slatted crate is in the Gazebo. The crate is a container. Instead of taking the crate, say “It’s far too heavy to lift.”

Inform is not capable of understanding arbitrary written English, but has a set of sentence forms it understands, and some inference rules built in (for example, if you tell it that “Mr Brown wears a hat”, it will infer that Mr Brown is a person).

scribb1e pointed out that this makes the work of writing the story similar to playing it. That could turn out to be a bad thing: most programming languages are so stylised and full of random punctuation symbols that programmers realise they’re not writing English and don’t try writing arbitrary English text in the hope of being understood by the computer. Even for people who understand Inform isn’t actually intelligent and that they have to write in Inform’s dialect to be understood, writing in something close to English will make it harder to remember to restrict their vocabulary. At worst, it could become a game of guess the verb, which would be painful (as opposed to a game of Guess The Verb, which I thought was fun, especially the Old Man River bit in the help).

However, unlike playing a game, looking at the excellent and witty online help doesn’t risk spoiling your fun. Since it’s all English, it’s easy to crib paragraphs of text from the examples and adapt them to your own works. Hopefully, writing the games in English will enable more people to create them without feeling that they have to be expert programmers. They’ll still have to think like a programmer, but won’t face the intimidating prospect of curly brackets.

Inform 7 itself isn’t just the compiler, it’s is a complete suite of tools for writing, testing and releasing interactive fiction, the IF equivalent of an Integrated Development Environment. It’s rather nice (although not yet available for anything other than Windows and Mac OS, because of the difficulty of getting the graphical stuff going on a variety of platforms).

Vim 7

I use the Vim editor, which is the old Unix vi with all the features you want from a modern programmer’s editor bolted on. New in Vim 7 there’s a spelling checker, “IntellisenseTM” style context-sensitive completion of names in code, and tabbed windows (no software is complete without tabbed windows these days).

The completion stuff is particularly useful, as it now pops up a menu of possible completions which you can select from with the cursor keys, and appears to be trying harder to find completions from nearby files in the background as you’re typing (I’ve not quite worked out what it’s doing yet, it’s reaching the stage where it’s just magic). Completion isn’t just for programmers, of course: when I’m typing an email, if I find myself using the same, long, word more than once, typing the initial letters and then letting Vim complete it is a boon.