2007

The site of the book of the sites, The Internet, now in handy book form, is good fun. Crackbook and Poormatch are particularly well observed. It reminded me of TV Go Home, but a little less bitter and scatological (only a little, mind you).

Quotable quotes of the week:

“… any time anyone’s said anything comprehensible about the Trinity the Church has declared it a heresy.” – gjm11 on a Rilstone post created specifically for him.

“The universe tends toward maximum irony. Don’t push it.” – jwz on taking reliable backups (which is much harder on a Mac than it ought to be).

“All those fine words about the rule of law safeguarding our liberties, the arbitrary exercise of power and Bunker Hill, Lexington and Normandy went right out the window on 9/11. That was when Henry and the rest of his stalwart defenders of the rule of law promptly wet their pants and then let their president use the constitution to clean up the puddle.” – Digby, via a friend of a friend.


There’s an option that I might have considered instead of apostasy. Unfortunately, in those conservative days, you couldn’t really do that sort of thing. These days, if LiveJournal is anything to go by, it’s all the rage. A woman tells us how she’s in an open relationship with Jesus.

Andrew Rilstone has posted some more in his Sceptics Guide to Richard Dawkins. There’s a critique of Dawkins’s response to people who complain that he doesn’t know any theology, and another criticising Dawkins’s claim that “You shall not kill” was only ever understood to refer to fellow Jews.

atreic has a small discussion about it. gjm11 has commented on Rilstone’s blog, and, not very surprisingly, I think we’re in agreement on this. As I said in a previous entry on Rilstone’s earlier entries in his Guide, I don’t think he’s answered Dawkins’s best arguments.

pw201_links is a LiveJournal feed of my bookmarks on del.ico.us. If you want to see stuff I’m looking at but haven’t yet bothered to write a proper post about, you can befriend it (it’s not equivalent to adding pw201 as a friend, it’s a separate thing which I set up but I don’t control directly, see below). It’ll be composed of equal parts religion stuff, technical stuff (security is a special interest at the moment, but that’ll vary with time), and random internet bollocks. There’ll probably a few posts a day at peak times, but usually one per day or less.

Exposition: pw201_links is what LiveJournal calls a syndicated account. There are lots of these on LJ, as paying users can create them from the feeds exported by other websites and then read those feeds on their friends page. I tend to read these feeds in Bloglines and keep my LJ friends list for people and communities who are actually on LJ; if you do that but want to spy on me anyway, add the RSS feed to your feed reader.

You can make comments on the postings on a syndicated account, but I won’t get notifications about them so probably won’t read them, and they’ll be deleted as postings fall off the bottom of the feed.

While we’re on the subject of syndicated accounts: sumanah, I tried to respond to your email the other say and got a bounce with the error code “553 5.3.0 sPoOf”. I’m not sure what that’s about, but it looks like I’m hitting a spam filter of some sort.

robhu linked to a post on convert_me in which pooperman realises he’s an atheist after reading Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. There’s some interesting reflection on the origins of scriptural literalism, which is related to the stuff about science and truth in my last post. pooperman writes:

Basically, Harris’ has ceded–on behalf of religion, apparently–the hermeneutic of scripture to the fundamentalists. What Harris fails to understand is the scriptural basis for a more-moderate and more-metaphorical (as well as through the changing lens of historical contexts) interpretation of much of scripture. Also, Harris presumes that the literal approach to scripture is more-primitive, more-fundamental–that the “first” believers in these ancient religions understood and interpreted the texts in a straightforward and unquestioningly literal way.

There is a good chance, IMO, that Harris has this completely backwards. It is entirely possible that religious moderation is more primitive, and that literalism is a more modern corruption of religion–a corruption from the outside, not from within. What is the source of this corruption? It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of science and the increasing rhetorical value of the “objectively true” that science (and, more to the point, engineering) has infected the religious mindset and caused some of the religious to prematurely devalue the indirect truths and insights of a beautifully-complex metaphorical image and to seek to replace these images as images with a direct, parsimonious, and straightforward representation of Truth, without sacrificing the images themselves. The literalists have, I think, slit their spiritual wrists with Ockham’s razor.


I’ve often heard that evangelicalism is a modern heresy, but I’ve never seen the historical evidence for it. Does anyone have any references for that idea?

Evangelicals like to quote scary (to them) statistics about how many teenage Christians will “fall away” (Christian jargon for leaving the faith) on going to university, or how many student Christians will no longer be Christians 5 or 10 years later.

P Z Myers over at Pharyngula pointed to a recent press release from US evangelicals who were worried about their teenagers going astray, quoting surveys which said over 50% would fall away at university. It’s not clear who did the surveys, so atheists should probably find that out before joining Myers in jumping for joy. As one of the commenters at Pharyngula says, moral panic is a great way to raise funds for your organisation.

When I was a lad, CICCU liked to quote similarly hopeful surveys about the perseverance of their graduates. In an old post of mine you can see my notes from a leavers’ talk given by the students’ curate at my old church. She quoted a UCCF survey which gave an attrition rate of over 50% after 5 years. It turns out that UCCF have never heard of such a survey. The link to the UCCF web forum where they said this is now defunct (presumably as part of the UCCF’s goal of ruthlessly suppressing open discussion), but you can see what Dave Bish, one of their staff workers, has to say about it. As well as saying there is no such survery, he writes that Christians should be careful of the post-hoc fallacy if they are tempted to blame university Christian Unions for their apostates. After saying that, he replies to a comment saying that someone should get some real statistics (which must include appropriate controls for non-CU Christians, and non-Christians, I think) by saying that such statistics are irrelevant because God has already told us in the Bible what causes people to fall away. Phew! I’m glad we sorted that one out.

Back here in the reality-based community, though, I’d be very interested in the results of such a survey. I know lots of people like me, and another LJer has said that “to say that I keep stumbling upon people with similar experiences is an understatement”. But the plural of anecdote is not data. Such a survey wouldn’t prove anything about the truth or otherwise of Christianity, of course, but that’s not why it’s interesting.

The discussion on Pharyngula turned up something which struck a chord with me. In the past, when talking about other post-university ex-evangelicals, many of whom studied science, I’ve spoken about them as seeing evangelicalism as a spiritual analogue of science. Is it science students that fall into evangelicalism and then fall out again? Perhaps that’s a bit too simple. A commenter on Myer’s posting quotes The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, a free book about the state of politics in the USA. Chapter 4 discusses evangelicalism. The author writes about ex-evangelical apostates, and completely nails it:

What then gnawed away so mercilessly at the apostates that they could no longer overpower doubt with faith?

Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.



The truth will make you free, as someone once said.

Channel 4 screened Enemies of Reason, another Dawkins mini-series, on Monday night. Slaves to Superstition was the first of a two-parter; the second, The Irrational Health Service is on Monday night at 8pm. If you missed the first one, or are foreign, you can see it on Google Video, or get it from BitTorrent.

Having dealt with religion in Root of All Evil?, Dawkins has turned his attention to astrology, spiritualism, dowsing and suchlike; the sort of stuff which regular readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column know as “woo-woo”.

As Charlie Brooker’s excellent review says, this time round Dawkins seems to have toned down the outspokenness which gets him a bad reputation in some quarters. Sometimes I found myself wishing he’d been a little more direct, but his tactic of sitting quietly while someone tried to give him a psychic reading (or whatever) and politely pointing out where they were getting it wrong made his opponents look silly without making him look mean-spirited, so perhaps it was for the best. As a commenter on James Randi’s forum said, “There should be at least one program a week where Dawkins stares at people while they try to explain their woo.”

The first part of the programme mostly consists of that sort of thing, of one charlatan (or sincerely deluded practitioner) after another facing Dawkins’s quiet questioning. I thought of it as shooting fish in a barrel, but maybe there really are people out there who don’t know that there’s bugger all evidence for woo-woo. scribb1e pointed out that most of those people probably weren’t watching, but he did have a prime-time slot. We can but hope, I suppose.

Dawkins talks to Derren Brown about mediums and cold reading. You can see Brown’s classic illustration on how psychics work on YouTube, although as ever with Brown, be aware that sometimes his “explanations” of how he did a trick are themselves misdirection. Nevertheless, Brown claims no special powers and yet is able to do this sort of thing. Brown rightly points out that there’s something particularly sleazy about the medium industry, as it feeds of the grief of the bereaved.

Dawkins is genuinely concerned that woo-woo is supplanting science, and intersperses his examination of the woo with paeans to science and to the wonders of the natural world. He talks about the decline in people studying science at A-level and university, and of the closure of science departments at some universities (does anyone know how common this is? It’s a worrying trend, if it’s true). Perhaps responding to critics who call him a fundamentalist, he says “I’m often asked how I know that there isn’t a spirit world or psychic clairvoyance. Well, I don’t. It seems improbable, but unlike the fixed worldviews of mystical faith, science is always open to new possibilities.” He follows this up with the story of the discovery of echo-location in bats, a relatively recent example of evidence causing scientific theories to change.

To illustrate the sort of evidence he’s after, Dawkins shows a double-blind trial of dowsers, who are asked to identify which of some sealed boxes contain bottles of water and which contain bottles of sand. After they all fail to do better than random guesses would, their denial in the face of evidence leads into the final part of the programme, where Dawkins questions why these people continue to believe in their abilities.

He settles on the same sort of explanations which some evolutionists have advanced for religions, namely that we are good at spotting patterns and sometimes do so when the patterns aren’t real. Skinner’s superstitious pigeons are an example of the sort of thing he means. We have cognitive and perceptual glitches (see the “Slight of Mind” section in the endnotes to Peter Watts’s Blindsight, for example). These make us vulnerable to conspiracy theories of the sort which, Dawkins point out, find their natural home on the Internet, in the many pages which insist that Armstrong never went to the Moon, or that “Jews did WTC”. In the face of this, how can we know anything at all? Dawkins seems to get close to tripping over something like C.S. Lewis’s arguments on the rationality of naturalism (as a character in Blindsight says, our brains may delude us if that has more survival value than showing us the truth).

In the end though, Dawkins is a pragmatist. He points of the successes of the scientific method as evidence that it works, and to the MMR scandal as an example of what happens when the careful gathering of evidence is ignored in favour of personal feelings. Our glitches may cause us to make mistakes, but we have to do the best we can. Dawkins speaks of the gradual build up of evidence for echo-location in bats, contrasting it with the fleeting evidence for the paranormal. The careful steps of science may be frustratingly slow, but make us less likely to fall into the cracks in our minds.

Oh my. The feminist bloggers have taken on the Internet Hate Machine known as Anonymous. Encyclopedia Dramatica (very NSFW and extremely offensive, don’t blame me if you get fired) has the scoop on the post which might have been from Biting Beaver that started it all, as well as the on-going aftermath.

Some of the commenters on the feminist blogs get it, and actually tell them what’s going on and how to weather the raids (ilyka, or Holly in this thread). Luckily for Anonymous, the rest of the commenters either ignore them or jump on them and accuse them of misogyny, while beginning the countdown which will end in them reaching Defcon 1 and launching the e-lawyers against the Patriarchy. Hint: the only winning move is not to play.

It’s like the Internet perfect storm. Who brought popcorn?

This is an article about the sort of thing I spend my days doing. Usually, I can’t talk about that, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, however, this particular case is completely unrelated to anything my employer sells, so I should be OK. I’ve tried to explain things sufficiently well that someone non-technical can get it. Hopefully it’s not too dull or incomprehensible.

First, we need some technical background…

The Naming of the Parts

A graph is a bunch of things connected by lines. The CDC Snog Graph is an example of what I mean. The things (representing people, in this case) are known as vertices or nodes, and the lines (representing joyous sharing experiences of some sort, in this case) are known as edges.

The lines on the Snog Graph don’t have a direction, so we call it an undirected graph. If you add a direction to each edge, you get a directed graph, which we can represent by putting arrows on the lines. Friendship on Facebook can be represented as an undirected graph (where the nodes are people and the edges mean “is friends with”), because all friendships are mutual, but LiveJournal friendships need a directed graph to represent them, since I can be your friend without you being mine, and vice versa.

A graph is cyclic if there’s a way to walk along edges starting at one node (following the arrows if the edges are directed) and get back to that node again without walking the same edge more than once. The Snog Graph is cyclic, as is the graph of friendships on a Facebook or LJ (trivially so on LJ, where it’s possible to friend yourself. Regular dancers might consider how this applies to their graph, vis-a-vis people who consider avoiding other dancers an optional extra). Graphs where you cannot do this are called acyclic.

Usenet news: you tell kids today that, and they don’t believe you

Usenet is an electronic discussion system which pre-dates all this newfangled World Wide Web nonsense. It distributes messages which are known as articles. It has some desirable features that web-based discussion forums often lack, like comment threading and remembering what you’ve already read. These days, people think Usenet is owned by Google, but in fact it’s a distributed system, with no central server (another advantage over LJ). When you want to talk to Usenet without using Google, you run a client program on your own machine, which talks to your local server. Your local server forwards your article to servers it knows about, which then forward it to servers they know about, and so on (the path of an article through the servers forms a directed acyclic graph, in fact). When you want to read other people’s articles, your client program fetches them from your local server.

Each article is posted to one or more groups, which are like communities on LJ. Note that, unlike LJ, the same article can be posted to more than one group without having to cut and paste it: the same article exists in each group it is cross-posted to.

On each server, articles have a number within each group. The first article to arrive in a group has number 1, the second article number 2, and so on. Cross-posted articles have more than one number, one for each group the article appears in.

Article numbers differ between servers, because the order of arrival depends on the path the article has taken to reach the server, but since your client program only talks to your local Usenet server, it usually refers to articles by their number (there’s also a unique string of letters and numbers which identifies the article, which is how servers know which ones they’ve seen already, but that’s not important right now). Remembering which articles you have read is then just a matter of storing some ranges of numbers for each group (so your client might remember that you have read articles 1-100,243-299 and 342-400, say).

The problem

We wanted to de-commission a Usenet server and move its articles to another server. The servers run different and incompatible software, so the most obvious way to get articles from one server to another is to post them like a client or another server would.

The new server is supposed to be a drop-in replacement for the old one, so we can’t change the numbers or the existing client programs will get confused and think you’ve read articles you haven’t, or vice versa. So you can’t just grab all the articles from the old server any old how and post them to the new one, because they’ll be jumbled up. Unfortunately, the old server has no way of directly telling us the precise order that articles arrived in, though it will tell us article numbers within each group.

“Aha!”, we think. Since the order of arrival matters, we’ll grab the articles in order from one group on the old server, post them in that order on the new server, and move on to the next group, where we’ll do the same, and so on until we’ve done all the groups.

This idea is ruined by cross-posts, because they have more than one article number associated with them. If a cross-posted article is number 10 in one group and number 3 in another, you’d better post the first 9 articles to the first group, the first 2 to the second group, and then you can make the cross-post. But maybe there’s a cross-post to a third group in those 9 articles, so you’ll need to get that group up to date before you can post one of those. How do you work out what order to post the articles in?

Obscure Unix tools to the rescue

You might have guessed that the wibbling about graphs wasn’t entirely tangential to all this. You can draw a graph of the problem. Each article is a node. For each group, connect each article to the one with the next number up by a directed edge (in this case, the direction of the arrow means “must be posted before”). You’ve drawn yourself a directed acyclic (since the article numbers only increase) graph. The cross-posted articles are then nodes with more than one edge coming into them.

One of the wizards at work realised this, and also pointed out that there’s a standard Unix tool for converting such graphs into a list of nodes whose order preserves the order implied by the arrows, a procedure which is known as a topological sort. The tool’s called tsort. From there, it’s just a matter of representing each article in the way tsort understands. When you do that, tsort gives you an order in which you can post the articles from the old server to the new server so they’ll be given the same numbers on the new server as they had on the old one.

In which I’m not as knowledgeable as the wizards

The way I thought of to do it was to write my own program. You pick a group, and start trying to post articles from the old to the new server in article number order. If they’re not cross-posted, you just keep going. When you hit a cross-posted article, you switch to each group it is cross-posted to in turn, and try to post all the articles before the cross-post to each of those groups. If while you’re doing that, you hit another cross-post, you remember where you got up to and do exactly the same thing with the groups that second cross-post is posted to, and when you’ve done that, you switch back to the groups for the first cross-post. I had a working version of this at about the same time as someone pointed out that tsort does the job 🙂

(Aside for the techies: this can be done using recursion. It looks like this is pretty much equivalent to one of the ways of doing a topological sort, namely the depth-first search mentioned on the Wikipedia page).

So I learned about topological sorts by re-inventing one. Most of the problems I deal with aren’t in fact cases of well-known problems (although I would say that if I was merely bad at recognising the fact, wouldn’t I?), but when they are, recognising that can save a lot of time.

And that’s what I do when I’m not on holiday.

I have a message between two people who aren’t me (and aren’t known to me, don’t worry!) sat in both my Facebook Inbox and Sent Messages. The message was sent at 3:04 pm today, apparently.

This does not appear to be the problem mentioned in The Register recently, whose symptoms were that people would see whole pages belonging to other users. I can see my Inbox with messages people have sent to me, but I can see a message between these two people in it. I’ve sent them a message to ask whether they meant to message me, but right now, that looks unlikely.

A while back I wrote about some of the advantages of centralisation for keeping out spam and making new features available quickly. The downside, as livredor pointed out, is that Facebook is a single point of failure.

Could this happen with standard Internet email? Yes: I could mis-address the mail (less likely if I use an address book rather than typing an address by hand), or the recipient’s server could mis-deliver it (usually, if my outbound server hands my mail to the wrong remote server, the remote end will reject it). Are popular mail servers more reliable than Facebook? Almost certainly, I’d say. Lots of people are on Facebook, but I reckon the volume of Internet email is still orders of magnitude greater than that of Facebook messages. The email servers handling that volume are so reliable that I’ve never heard of a case of mis-delivered (as opposed to mis-addressed or lost) email. Google Groups doesn’t seem to have done so either, or at least, the evidence is uncertain. The Usenet postings I found talking about mis-delivered mail seemed to be explained by the little-known fact that Internet email is like a letter: there’s an envelope destination address used to deliver it, as well as the “Dear Fred” saluation you see in the To: header or Cc: header. I had a friend at university who used to send out party invites which looked as if they been addressed to president@whitehouse.gov and god@heaven.org. Anyway…

Don’t send anything sensitive in Facebook messages, will you?

Edited to add: The message has gone again now. I’ve used the help form to tell Facebook about it, so we’ll see what they say.

I’ve recently finished reading Between Silk and Cyanide, The Atrocity Archives and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Between Silk and Cyanide is Leo Marks’s memoir of his time working as a code-maker for the Special Operations Executive during World War II. SOE agents were parachuted into occupied countries with the job of organising the resistance to the German occupation and of carrying out assassinations, sabotage and the like, “setting Europe ablaze”, in Churchill’s words. The agents communicated with Britain using enciphered messages sent in Morse code on their portable radio sets.

The ciphers used by SOE were keyed by words chosen from poems memorised by the agents. Marks instituted the use of original compositions, to prevent the enemy cryptographers from deducing which poem was in use and hence breaking all future messages. The book is peppered with his poems, including The Life That I Have. Eventually, Marks instituted the move to random keys printed on silk (so that keys which had been used could be cut away and burned), which, while they still keyed a weak transposition cipher, gave the agents some more security. He also independently invented a way of using one time pads to encipher text.

Marks narrates a story of brave men and women let down, in some cases fatally, by incompetence, bureaucracy and infighting among those who notionally had a common aim. His description of his struggles to improve the security of agents’ message is by turns funny and tragic, with passages which might have been taken from Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall alongside brief but nonetheless horrifying descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by the Gestapo. Between Silk and Cyanide is a fascinating and moving book.

Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives deals with a fictional successor to SOE, an organisation known as “The Laundry”. Stross draws his inspiration from the idea of a Platonic universe where mathematical reasoning can change reality (familiar to readers of Greg Egan) or break your brain (as in David Langford’s short story, Blit). In a stroke of genius, Stross combines this with the horror trope of “things Man was not meant to know” to create a universe in which Cthulhu lurks in the folds of the Mandlebrot set. National governments know about this, but it’s all hushed up, of course. The Laundry is Her Majesty’s Government’s thin grey line of civil servants, who keep the rest of us safe from unspeakable horrors who want to eat our brains. From there we get the book’s other influence, the spy novels of people like Len Deighton and John le Carre, where, as in Marks’s factual story, infighting and petty malice mean the people on your side can be worse than the enemy itself.

The book contains The Atrocity Archive, as well as the follow-up short story The Concrete Jungle (link to the full text) and an essay by Stross on the links between Cold War spy fiction and horror. The Atrocity Archive itself is darker than The Concrete Jungle, being closer to A Colder War, Stross’s earlier work along similar lines. There are some some nasty set-pieces among the geek references and spycraft. The story takes its time introducing the world before anything much happens, but when things get going it’s gripping stuff.

The Concrete Jungle is more of a romp from the start, where the truly sinister is absent, and instead we get a spy action story combined with Dilbert in a universe where magic works, a world in which Bond might check out a Hand of Glory from Q while worrying about whether he’s filled in his TPS report. Stross has done his research, from the code-word compartments on secret documents to the name Dansey House for the Laundry’s HQ.

I enjoyed both stories. A follow-up, The Jennifer Morgue, is out soon, so I’m looking forward to that.

Medium-sized Potter spoilers coming up…

<lj-cut text=”Cut for spoilers”>I’m not a huge Potter fan, but I think the books are fun. The final book was a good read, wrapping things up nicely. As the darkness deepens, Rowling continues the theme that the people we think are the gods in our youth are actually morally ambiguous (I’m sure I’m supposed to say bildungsroman at some point, so that’s that out of the way). The middle of the book bogged down a bit with mopey New-Age-Traveller Potter camping out in the woods (hope he cleaned up after himself, bloody crusties (ETA: offensive slang term corrected to right one for New Age Travellers), but things bucked up after a while. Some of the major character deaths seemed a bit perfunctory, but the ones we did see were quite affecting.

The epilogue has attracted some criticism, but if you read this excellent bit of fanfiction you might wonder whether Rowling has been very clever after all (or you might think that tkp is pretty bright herself).

Rowling has created a series which has held its interest over seven books, got kids reading again, and deservedly made her richer than God. Hats off to the author.