January 2007

Some of you might have played with emulators which let your PC pretend to be the classic computers of your youth (the BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Commodore 64 and so on). The emulators work by simulating the processors in those machines on your PC, so you end up with Chuckie Egg running on a virtual BBC Micro running on a PC running on whatever the underlying physics of the universe happen to be.

robhu found a puzzle based on a similar idea. The International Conference on Functional Programming have an annual contest. Last year’s was particularly fun:

In 1967, during excavation for the construction of a new shopping center in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, workers uncovered a vault containing a cache of ancient scrolls. Most were severely damaged, but those that could be recovered confirmed the existence of a secret society long suspected to have been active in the region around the year 200 BC… Among the documents found intact in the Monroeville collection was a lengthy codex, written in no known language and inscribed with superhuman precision.

You’re given the codex, and the specification for a processor used by the Cult of the Bound Variable. Once you’ve written an emulator for that processor, you’re off (unless, like me, you write the emulator in a few hours and spend half a day corrupting the files from the contest website with your editor and wondering why it isn’t working). There’s an ancient Unix system, complete with ancient spam, and various puzzles which I’ve not had a chance to look at yet.

According to reports on the contest, lots of people tried to write the emulator in high level languages where it ran like treacle. A C implementation like mine (which may count as a spoiler for people who want to do it themselves) without any namby-pamby array bounds checking nonsense works fast enough that you can’t tell you’re not talking to a real ancient Unix system. There’s life in the C language yet.

I’m lost in admiration for the people who produced the codex. It required writing a compiler backend targeting the fictional processor, and implementing various other languages on top of that, as well as coming up with the puzzles. I’m not sure how far I’ll get with the puzzles before my ability or patience expires, as I’m a hacker rather than a computer scientist, but still, the thing is amazingly cool. It’s a time sink for geeks, so I pass it on to those of you who, like me, will waste many days on it. Have fun.

The recent Dispatches, Undercover Mosque (see Youtube or Google Video), has stirred up a lot of debate. Channel 4’s reporter went into what was considered a moderate mosque and discovered it not so moderate after all. I know you can do a lot with selective editing, but it’s hard to see how context would make some of the statements in the programme sound any better. Indeed, the video response from Abu Usamah where he explains what he actually meant doesn’t really help his case.

Channel 4 has given both evangelical Christians and atheists a hard time in the not too distant past, so it doesn’t seem likely they’ve singled Muslims out for special treatment. What’s more interesting was whether these preachers are representative of “moderate” Islam. The forum of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (whoever they may be) has some interesting discussion on the topic, with many Muslims chiming in.

On the off-chance you’re here for some content rather than the humourous cat photos, you might be interested in some discussions I’ve been having with Stephen from Outside the Box. Stephen first turned up on a posting of mine about anger among de-converts from religion.

Stephen has made some interesting posts lately. I’ve commented on a couple, one on evidence for God’s existence, and the other on atheism and the god shaped hole in scientific knowledge. Stephen said some nice things about my comment on the latter posting.

According to Wikipedia’s article on the God of the Gaps, Christian theologians have specifically warned Christians off making arguments for God from scientific ignorance (it’s an obvious tactical error, because the areas of ignorance tend to get smaller). Nevertheless, you do see Christians doing it, and atheists have tended to consider all arguments of this form a fallacy. As I said in my comment to Stephen, I don’t think it’s a strict fallacy (God might have done whatever this thing is that we don’t have a good explanation for yet). But to go from there to claiming that a lack of a scientific explanation is evidence for a specific sort of God, as some Christian apologists do, is begging the question (which is a fallacy) because it assumes that “God” as a label for “whatever is in the gaps” is identical to the God that the apologist is advocating. That’s what makes the Flying Spaghetti Monster a useful tool for annoying Intelligent Design advocates.

Stephen sounds like he’d like to follow Descartes in seeing what he can find out about God from first principles. I don’t think you’ll get very near a Christian God by doing that (and I expect Christians would agree, because they’d talk about the need for revelation, whether from the church or the Bible). Nevertheless, I’ll be interested to see where that line of thought takes him.

the_alchemist, who is an e-friend-of-a-friend, writes about The God Delusion, disagreeing with Dawkins’s argument that children should not be labeled with the religion of their parents. The discussion in the comments is interesting. I got involved in a thread about whether scientists are ignoring the god-shaped hole in human knowledge.

I’m also involved in another thread discussing religious language and whether the New Atheists are spouting off about fields they know nothing about. Pharyngula dismisses some of those sort of arguments as the Courtier’s Reply, but still, I’m interested in quite what the “non-literal” Christians are saying, and I don’t understand it yet.

Meanwhile, robhu has been listening to the sermons of Julian Hardyman, who preaches at the other big student church in Cambridge (the one I didn’t go to, because I was an Anglican). The three sermons robhu discusses are about the reliability of the Bible; science and religion; and atheism. Again, the comments are worth reading too.

I’ve now finished both Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, so I’ll post about those when I get round to it.

Happy New Year to you all. December was busy. We visited my family in Yorkshire, saw gjm11, Mrs gjm11 and the new sprog, went to the CDC Christmas Dinner Dance, and to Safi and Mike’s wedding. We had 9 people over to ours on Christmas Day, and I spent New Year showing people how to tie a bow-tie.

<lj-cut>The Christmas Dinner Dance was fun. As well as the ex-student hangers-on like me, there was a contingent of people who I’d guess were about my parents’ age. It’s always nice to see the old people enjoying themselves 🙂 Wolfson did good food and there were plenty of people to dance with. unoriginal1729 took some pictures, but I’ve not seen them yet: did any of them come out?

The wedding was lovely. Always nice to see the bride make the “obey” vow: the old ways are the best, I’ve never seen the point of this picking and choosing from the Bible you get these days. There was a ceilidh during which I managed to fall over on scribb1e (the basket is a dangerous ceilidh move) but she didn’t break.

scribb1e volunteered to cook Christmas dinner this year, for 9 people (my parents, her parents, her grandmother and my sister and brother-in-law). I helped by peeling several kilograms of vegetables and by getting out of the way. The turkey was called Sidney, apparently, and he tasted very nice, although the cook herself refused to sample him. scribb1e got me Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, among other things, so expect a review of that at some point. We had a sing-song around the piano in the evening, which made a change from watching whatever tat they’d put on TV.

Between Christmas and New Year, I mostly sat on the sofa and ate After-8’s while reading Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version, which is a classical historian’s take on the Bible. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Biblical texts. A fuller review might follow at some point.

gjm11 had an open house, at which there was an impromptu meeting of the LiveWires ex-Christians society in the kitchen. I don’t know what they put in the water at LiveWires: if I did, I could extract it and sell it to Dawkins or Harris.

I was at a James Bond themed party on New Year’s Eve. I was the only man present wearing a real bow-tie, so demonstrations of how to tie it became a party-piece. Sadly, it looked better on the girls than me. Alas, the blokes’ demands for the girls in the full bunny-girl outfit went unheeded. I have vague, now suppressed, memories of cha-cha’ing with dab13, but luckily there are no photos of that.

Back to work tomorrow.