May 2007

Shock news tonight, as Livejournal administrators delivered a stairwell noncebashing, leaving many fanfic journals braindead and quadraspazzed on a life-glug (script here). LJ’s abuse team don’t seem to have realised that such excesses are unacceptable in the modern police service. There are persistent reports that journals for survivors of rape and incest were also deleted, but I’ve seen no real confirmation of this.

A group of hicks from the USA appear to have provoked this, dealing out street justice in between engaging in car chases with a fat sheriff; driving a car with the doors welded shut, a Confederate flag on the blogrollroof, and a horn that plays Dixieland. Some day the mountain might get ’em, but, alas, it seems the law never will.

This is, perhaps, a timely reminder that sites like LJ are businesses (LJ may have started as a hobbyist site, but has not been one since the 6Apart takeover, at the very latest). They are not your friends. They will defend your free speech exactly as far as it profits them to do so, and they’re certainly not prepared to undertake legal battles on your behalf. bubble_blunder has a realistic assessment of the likely outcomes of this latest LJ drama.

There are tools which will back-up your journals and comments, and you can configure LJ to email you your own comments on other people’s journals. It seems wise to make use of these facilities if you value your journal’s contents at all.

LJ are doing their usual headless-chicken imitation when faced with a crisis. They’ve made no public statement on this business, perhaps hoping that word of it won’t spread outside the Snape/Hermione fan-fiction writers. While I’ve no interest in slash, and I appreciate LJ’s right to avoid legal liability, their handling of their users once again sucks.

Edited to add: The CEO of 6Apart apologised. Best comment thread in the responses.

So, Facebook have opened up their site to allow third parties to do stuff, namely put stuff on consenting users’ profiles, stick items in the feed, and embed an interface to a third-party site inside Facebook. I eagerly await:

I’m quite faint with excitement.

But srsly, this is an interesting ploy for world domination by Facebook. Why bother starting your new knitting, kitten appreciation or dating site if you can start one within Facebook and make use of (I’m fighting the urge to use the word “leverage” here, Dawkins help me) their existing users? You do need somewhere to host your application, which might mean big hosting bills if it became popular, but if you’re not writing something which needs lots of state available on the network, it looks like you could also do interesting things from the user’s desktop, or even from their browser with things like Greasemonkey scripts or browser add-ons.

Personally, I’m interested in online CDC Top Trumps. A port of that 100 Million Spiders thing looks like a win, too: it’d be funny, and some I noticed that some members of Facebook are already complaining that they can’t put “Alice is in a dom-sub poly pirate-ninja conglomerate with Bob and Eve” on their profile using Facebook’s existing relationship options (they’re complaining by forming a Facebook group, naturally).

Finally, CNN’s in-depth report on the changes solves the mystery of what Facebook’s “poke” function is for. Apparently It even still has a feature which enables you to “poke” another member – something most people interpret to mean a sexual come-on. So now you know. Lord knows how you interpret the sort of poke war that lots of Facebook users get into.

Roy Zimmerman, the Tom Lehrer for the Noughties, has some new videos out. Squeee!, as I believe the saying goes.

Ted Haggard is Completely Heterosexual covers the rise and fall of the American evangelical preacher.

For guitarists out there, there are also videos on how to play Jerry Falwell’s God and Creation Science 101. For the non-guitarists, Zimmerman intersperses his guitar lesson with some choice words on Falwell (though not quite as choice as those of Hitchens, who you might think was promoting a book at the moment, or something).

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, has discovered that Richard Dawkins is actually a liberal Anglican (see her blog post for more).

Meanwhile, Andrew Rilstone has been writing his Sceptic’s Guide to Richard Dawkins, a lengthy series of articles which, among other things, re-iterates other reviewers’ arguments that Dawkins is not addressing the sort of God that Christians actually believe in (by the way, The Valve and respectable astrophysicist Sean Caroll both have good responses to Eagleton’s review).

I think that this argument is one of Rilstone’s weaker ones (he’s on much stronger ground pointing out Dawkins’s gaffes when talking about the details of religion). Dawkins responds to critics who say he only speaks about unsophisticated verisons of Christianity by saying that understated religion is numerically negligible. I agree, but my perception may be influenced by the circles I moved in when I was a Christian. As an evangelical, I believed in a personal, supernatural (in the sense of “beyond or outside nature”) God who created the universe (using evolution as a tool, admittedly, as I’d not entirely taken leave of my senses). That’s just the sort of God that Dawkins has in his sights. While there are lots of Christians who aren’t evangelicals, my perception was and is that most of them believe similar sorts of things. Yet Rilstone says he and many Christians believe something else, something more subtle. isn’t very helpful in determining who’s right, since it’s hard to link denominational affiliation to a place on the spectrum between “God is the existential ground of our being” (or Gledhill’s bizarre “God is String Theory”) and “God is a white-bearded daddy in the sky”. I’d be interested to know of any other surveys which could help out here.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter how many people believe in the “existential ground of our being” version of God, because if that’s the strongest version, that’s the one an atheist has to beat. However, Dawkins is not writing philosophy, but polemic. If you want to change the world, you’d better aim at where most believers are starting from. If you don’t make them atheists but do move them towards more understated religion, that’s at least some sort of progress (although if you’re a true New Atheist, you want them to abandon religion entirely, of course).

I must confess that I have very little idea about what this moderate religion actually asserts, or how one would practice it while knowing that you’re basically making it up as you go along. Rilstone argues that God is more like an author than a fellow character in our universe, but this does not seem to excuse God from titles like “creator” or “person”, which puts you right back in the path of Dawkins’s argument that such a creator is itself complex enough to require further explanation.

Gledhill has a different sort of moderation. When she gets excited about Dawkins’s concession that there might be a gigantic intelligence in the 11th dimension (my layman’s understanding of string theory is that it’d actually have to be a very small intelligence, but never mind), she’s so keen to hear Dawkins talk in those terms that she misses his statement that such an intelligence would need some explanation like evolution, and that such an intelligence is a very long way from the Christian conception of God, whether it’s my old one or Rilstone’s author. Whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.

I think Rilstone gets closer to the heart of moderate Christianity when he says that Dawkins thinks religion is all about belief, when it’s really about practice, or cultus as Rilstone puts it (gjm11‘s response to that is worth reading). Rilstone writes of Dawkins’s eulogy addressed directly to Douglas Adams in The God Delusion as the sort of religious practice that Dawkins fails to understand in the rest of the book.

When Dawkins writes to his dead friend, or Feynman to his dead wife (“Please excuse my not mailing this – but I don’t know your new address”), you’d need a heart of stone to be unmoved, or to berate these scientists for their departure from rationality.

But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters, and a society they could go along to every week to meet with other people who also write letters to the dead. We might regard that as a little odd, and question them about the evidence for the dead reading their letters. Suppose some of them responded that, on reflection, they weren’t really sure their letters were really read by their intended recipients, but they were carrying on with the society anyway. That’s where the religious moderates lose me, because I do not understand on what basis they continue. God is dead. Best to move on, I think.

Christopher Hitchens has a new book out. It’s called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I’m not sure what it’s about.

Hitchens also wrote an Londonistan Calling, an article in Vanity Fair, in which he mentions the Undercover Mosque programme I discussed a while ago.

An illuminating aside from the Q&A which followed the article: “I’ve heard a lot of secular Pakistanis complain that the cops, when they think we better go talk to the community, walk straight past them and head for the imam at the mosque, assuming that he’s the one they want to talk to.” It’s the sort of thing that Dawkins bangs on about in The God Delusion (“Why the chaplain? Why not the cook or the gardener?”) combined with a naive multi-culturalism which assumes that people can be divided into faith blocs based on their ancestors’ country of origin.

I don’t know whether Hitchens is right that the government is weak when it comes to sticking up for secular democracy. You might think that last year’s veil controversy represented some sort of stirring in that direction, but that seemed more like veering to the right in search of votes than any sort of coherent policy. As Hitchens points out, faith schools and the government’s choice of so-called community leaders are far more interesting than what Jack Straw’s constituents choose to wear.

“Witches just aren’t like that,” said Magrat. “We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and do no harm to anyone, and it’s wicked of them to say we don’t. We ought to fill their bones with hot lead.”

I used to watch Dalziel and Pascoe a while ago. I liked the by-play between ageing, un-PC, Dalziel and the painfully trendy Pascoe as Dalziel solved bluff Yorkshire crimes in his bluff Yorkshire way. So, the last double-parter was a bit unexpected, what with the naked pagan sex magick, tarot readers (who always draw major arcana on TV, note), demonic possession and ritual murder. M’lud, in Barnsley, they talk of little else.

Here’s a C language technique which I’d not seen before starting my current job, which I think deserves to be better known.

Let’s say you have a bunch of things, to which you’ve given sequential integer IDs using an enum.

  enum my_things {

For each of those things, you want to store some other information in various arrays, and index into the array using the enumerated value to pull that information out. Examples might be a parser (where the enums might identify operators, and an array might contain pointers to functions to implement them) or a message handling system (where the enums might identify types of message, and the array might contain pointers to functions to handle the messages).

void (*thing_fns[num_things])(void) = {
  void do_thing(enum my_things current_thing)
  void do_this(void)
  /* wibble */
  /* etc, etc. */

The problem comes when you want to add a new thing. You’re sizing the array using the enum, so it’s hard to get that wrong. But if you have a lot of things, sooner or later someone will add a new my_things member to the middle of the list (perhaps you’re listing your things in some order which makes sense in the context), go to update thing_fns, miscount how far down the definition thing_fns they’ve gone and screw up the ordering of the function pointers. Now the wrong function handles some (but not all) of the things, with hilarious results.

The solution is to maintain a single list of your things, and transform it into definitions for the enum and the associated arrays. You don’t need to write fancy code generator scripts for this, you can use the pre-processor. Wikipedia explains how.

(Note that Wikipedia’s example does away with sizing the array using the enum. They need to have a final NULL entry with no comma on the end to keep the compiler happy, so they’d end up writing the clunky num_things + 1. Now their array is sized correctly anyway.)

This chap goes into it in more detail, and also illustrates that your list of things doesn’t have to be in a seperate file.

Re-writing my example to use X-macros is left as an exercise for the reader. 🙂

Edited To Add: gjm11 points out that two of his friends have posted about this recently. gareth_rees has a more detailed example and some discussion.

serenasnape linked to an audio file of fun new words to an old favourite hymn. You can hear it here.

The events the song is describing are yet another example of Christians doing the Dawkins’ work for him. Adrian Warnock’s blog contains a good summary, but remembering that UK evangelicalism is a fandom, let’s lay it down the Fandom Wank way (note to Britishers: “wank” is apparently a lot less rude in America, so I hope you will forgive my adoption of their style):

Over on trujesusfans, stevechalke99 posted an entry saying that substitutionary atonement was wrong. He added “OMG! Harry and Hermione, OTP! That bitch Rowling doesn’t know what she’s doing”.

The wank ERUPTED on in the comments, and other Jesus fans were soon linking to stevechalke99‘s posting. Cue DRAMA. stevechalke99 was promptly banninated by thesoundchurch23, who mods UCCF and ciccuspouseparty. MASS DEFRIENDINGS followed a split between members of the pro-chalke springharvest and anti-chalke wordalive (bahleeted, link to Google cache) comms.

Big Name Fan and springharvest mod pluspete was like OMG! CALM DOWN!11!ONE!ELEVEN, but to NO AVAIL, as Bible fans BASHED ONE ANOTHER all over the GODBLOGOSPHERE. cont’d on pages 1054, 1517, 1534, etc. etc. etc.

I hope I’ve conveyed the seriousness with which we must view these debates.

I ought to be careful here, I suppose. It’s not as if atheists never disagree, for example. But what they’re arguing about is, to those involved, a question of the spiritual “rules” of the universe (or rather, the universe + God combo). It’s not a matter of personal opinions or motivations, it’s about absolute truth. And that’s where it all falls down. Each side is vigorously asserting that their view is the truth, but oddly, they can’t seem to demonstrate that in a way which the other side (or someone who just doesn’t care, like me) can agree with, despite the fact that we have two groups who both claim to believe “what the Bible says”.

Their problem is that neither side’s claims have any grounding in reality. Rather, these mass debates are game which each believer plays in his own head (if you’ll pardon the pronoun, males seem far more enthusiastic about this activity than females), imagining the responses of fantasy figures which are most pleasing to him. I’m sure there’s a name for that; it’s just temporarily slipped my mind.