my life

A combination of notes on the lessons and general diary stuff about Hullzapoppin, a dance camp in Hull. I don’t always make these public out of a vague fear of the lindy blogsphere descending on me and telling me what I got wrong, but what the HellHull. Possibly only of interest to dancers, though the rest of you may be interested in the part with the blow up doll, I suppose.


u6EDiUp the A1 and over the Humber bridge to Hull. A nun walking in the grounds of the Endsleigh Centre welcomed us in and wished us a lovely weekend. We registered and got our wristbands: Intermediate Advanced ones were black, which goes with everything.

We stayed in Westfield House, which was great. It’s a big house in a leafy suburb of Hull. All of the 4 rooms were occupied by lindy hoppers, as it turned out. The landlady made the breakfast room available at all hours, which came in handy for late night toast parties. Unfortunately, the house is on the market, so we may not be able to stay there next year.

We ate in Fudge, which seems to be the subject of some sort of smear campaign on Trip Advisor but which was rather good.

Back to the Endsleigh Centre for the Friday night dance. It was crowded but manageable. I danced with once of the teachers without realising she was a teacher, so don’t technically deserve my Courage Wolf meme, but managed not to totally embarrass myself.

Can anyone recommend one? One of those free 1 hour consultations would be nice.

Also, if anyone’s got any experience in taking action to get your deposit back, I’d welcome the benefit of your experience. I’m not going to give details in a public forum, but you can get in touch privately (paul AT or Facebook PM me or something) if you want to get into specifics.

I haven’t had much time for proper blogging lately, but I’ve been commenting elsewhere a bit, so I’m doing a series of short posts about that in an attempt to get back into the proper blogging habit.

Cambridge Vintage Night

I went to the inaugural Cambridge Vintage Night recently, so I was interested to read what Anthony thought of it and to stick my oar in:

One odd thing about this event was that I wasn’t quite sure what it was trying to be: it wasn’t quite advertised as a lindy event, but it was advertised to the local lindy hoppers (on Facebook) and it started with an introductory lindy lesson. There was a reasonable contingent of people from the various lindy scenes around Cambs, but we were outnumbered by muggles. I think everyone complaining about the music being too fast is a lindy hopper and so they mean “too many fast songs for (sustained) lindy” (which I’d agree with). I’m not sure what the non-dancers thought of it. The other Paul (who, if he’s who I think he is, runs a fun local event outside Cambridge, he’s probably too modest to say) has some good points on how you welcome in newbies at lindy events. There are plenty of people in Cambs who know how to do events like that if that’s what you want your event to be.

Playing for lindy hoppers is a different thing from playing from people who’ve come to bop around while wearing flapper dresses (there’s nothing wrong with the latter, of course). Lindy hoppers do turn up to things where there might be suitable music and make what we can of it without feeling hard done by if it doesn’t work out. But if you’ve sort of positioned it as a lindy thing and then it doesn’t work, the people who came thinking it was a lindy thing will be annoyed (hi Mark!)

Here are what I think are my best posts of 2010:

As I hinted at in that last post of mine, this has been a difficult year for me, culminating in my ongoing divorce proceedings after my then wife unexpectedly told me that she considered that whole “forsaking all others” thing as less of a solemn vow and more of a guideline. I’ve taken a long look at my priorities as a result, and resolved to spent less time arguing with idiots on the Internet (so, if you see me back on the Premier Christian Radio forums, remind me of my resolution) and more time going out dancing. There’ll probably be fewer posts of substance from me in 2011; however, I’m perfectly happy to argue with sane and sensible people, and I doubt I’ll be able to resist that urge entirely.

Thanks to my friends and family for all their support, and to the strangers who wrote to ask where I’d gone during the hiatus in my postings. May 2011 be a better year for us all.

Dear Lazyweb,

I’m thinking of getting one those shiny smartphone things. Looking at the iPhone, Google Nexus 1 and HTC Desire.

I like the idea of the dual microphone noise cancellation and the voice activation on the N1. The Desire has some sort of funky social networking stuff and a prettier UI that the N1, although there was some muttering on various web forums about HTC being slow at releasing updates (and you don’t get the noise cancellation or voice activation).

scribb1e has an iPhone and likes it. I’ve got a Mac, so everything will probably Just Work. That said, I’m loath to pay them money as they’re so tight-fisted about application development, but I’m probably kidding myself when I imagine that I might write something for an Android phone anyway.


The talk to CUAAS was surprisingly well attended, given I spoke at the same time as Jo Brand, who I met on my way to the loos (we exchanged nods, as one speaker at the Cambridge Union does to another: it is not the done thing to make much of these things). I’m not sure how many CICCU people turned up, since they didn’t make themselves known to me (apparently one woman was frantically making notes during my sermon, a well known evangelical habit, so I suspect there were a few). I spoke too fast, but people in Cambridge hear fast, so that’s probably OK.

Below, you can find my notes, with some hyperlinks to expand on the things I said.

“The Truth about CICCU”?

  • Not my tabloid headline, blame your committee 🙂
  • No toe-curling tales of secret rituals, alas.
  • In fact, none of this stuff is a secret.
  • But if you’re not a Christian, you might be curious about just what “those people” get up to, and why.
  • And if you’re a here as CICCU person wondering what I’m going to say, you’ll find out some stuff I wish I’d known as a CICCU member.
    • Not just that God isn’t real, either 🙂

Who I am:

  • Came up in 94, Churchill, NatSci (physics) for 4 years.
    • That means I’m incredibly old and all this stuff could be out of date
    • But I had a look at the CICCU website and things sound familiar, so…
  • Lived and worked in Cambridge after that, going to the church I went to as a student.
    • Gradually lost my faith during 2002.
    • Still interested in talking about religion and trying to understand it.
      • As well as taking the mickey occasionally.

How I got in

  • Parents sent me to a church school because of the “ethos”.
  • Followed a friend to Christian Union meetings there.
  • Read the entire New Testament as a sixth former, decided it sounded true.
  • So, I came up Christian already, but didn’t have a church.
  • Went to CU meetings at Churchill because a “Christian Union” sounded like a good thing to be in, just like the ones at school and sixth form were.

What it was like

  • I have my old emails. Everyone should keep theirs. So….
  • Initially, I just went to the college CU meetings, not the central ones in town.
  • College CUs got together, sang songs, prayed, read the Bible.
    • Though CICCU appointed the college reps, the individual CUs were friendlier to non-CICCU Christians than the central meetings.
  • Also got into a “prayer triplet”: meeting up with a couple of other guys to pray for each other and discuss what was often quite personal stuff. Nearest thing to a confessional in the evangelical world.
  • Everyone was friendly but over the course of the first year I began to feel that CICCU weren’t where I was:
    • I had gay friends and I knew CICCU disapproved of homosexuality (though not of being friends with gay people: how else to evangelise?)
  • Prayer triplet wanted me to go to one of the churches in Cambridge and stick with it. I was a bit shy of churches, but started going to St Andrew the Great.
    • St Andrew the Great is one of the churches in Cambridge that gets lots of students.
    • It’s Church of England, but conservative evangelical:
      • Evangelical: not just “in favour of converting people” (though that too): Bible inerrancy, personal response to God, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for sins). See the CICCU Doctrinal Basis.
      • Conservative: not politically (necessarily) but not given to things like speaking in tongues, prophesy in the church and so on. Emphasis on finding what God wants through Bible reading and prayer.
    • I thought StAG was good
      • Preaching was, and is, more interesting than sermons at middle of the road churches
    • But more “fundamentalist” than I was.
      • They’re not fundamentalist really, they’re evangelical, but I wasn’t very theologically sophisticated at that point.

  • Turning point: at the end of the first long vacation, went to CU “House party” in Derbyshire. (Churchill plus a couple of nearby colleges)
    • Mix of God stuff and walking, playing games and stuff.
    • The Bible stuff was impressive: the guest preacher had done a lot of thinking about the book we were reading.
    • The people were also impressive: I wanted to me more like them.
  • Decided to start reading the Bible by myself regularly, and praying.
  • Generally felt more committed to Christianity (and gradually became more evangelical).
  • Started going to the central meetings in town.
    • CICCU is a big name in some Christian circles, so they got people whose books I’d read and who were good speakers.
  • Briefly stopped worrying about how to get women to like me, which is tricky for a first year NatSci.
    • Then started worrying about how to get Christian women to like me.
  • Someone obviously noticed I’d got serious, because I was asked to lead Bible studies for my college’s CU in my third year.
    • Met other UCCF staff worker and study leaders to study the passage ourselves, went back to college and lead the group.
    • The “right answers” from the UCCF guy tend to win out because it’s hard to get anyone else to say anything at all (they’re shy), not because no other answers were tolerated.
  • CICCU missions
    • Happen in Lent term.
    • There’s a mini-mission on off years, and a big one every 3 years so every undergrad gets at least one big one.
    • Have always caused a bit of controversy, some years more than others.
    • Usually someone says something stupid about gay people, or someone gets offended by finding a gospel in their pigeon hole.
      • Handing out copies of a gospel to your friends is incredibly nerve wracking. Personally I don’t see the need to get offended by that: it’s a free book.
      • On the other hand, as an atheist I’d press them on the stuff about gays as hard as possible: it’s not nice (unlike the “permanently nice” image Christians have), and it’s not even what all Christians think. I get the impression a lot of evangelicals are secretly embarrassed about it.
    • I dragged friends to a few of the events, but none of them converted, fortunately.
  • Strategy varies: either “gospel is magic” or trying to look at “worldviews” (one CICCU mission when I was an undergrad was even called Paradigm Shift).
    • CICCUs current web pages suggest “gospel is magic” is fashionable again. Also, flares are in this season.
    • Note that Christians who believe Romans 1 often think that philosophical or theological arguments are a smoke screen for people who don’t want to admit that God exists and they should worship him.

  • Summer holiday camps
    • Run by Christian organisations, for churchy kids and friends.
    • Usually sort of activity holiday combined with telling the kids about God stuff.
    • Practically compulsory for CICCU members (“strongly encouraged”).
    • I found a programming/electronics one called LiveWires, which was great.
      • Not at all like “Jesus Camp”, if you’ve seen the film.

How it felt.

  • It can’t be all bad, or no-one would do it, right?
  • It feels good to be part of a group dedicated to what you think is a worthy cause.
    • To the extent that Christians evangelise, they’re acting in your interests, according to their beliefs.
  • Christians are not all stupid (just mistaken). CICCU’s brand of Christianity was intellectually satisfying (but closed, of which more later).
    • Seriously studying the Bible turns out to be interesting.
    • Being taught by big names at the top of their game, likewise.
    • CICCU’s version of inerrancy allows some parts of the Bible to be myth (in the technical sense) rather than reportage.
      • Did not require you to be a young earth creationist. I was a theistic evolutionist.
  • A lot of worries about whether you’re doing enough/your best.
    • The evangelical anthropology is deeply pessimistic about human nature.
    • You can find forgiveness, but only by admitting you’re basically bad.
    • Christians always think everyone else around them is a better Christian (or at least, I did).
  • Tension between piety and worldliness.
    • It would be possible to spend your entire social life doing Christian stuff (CICCU explicitly told us not to: how else to evangelise?).
    • Whether/how much to drink.
    • Fuss about trivia: Halloween formals.
    • Guilt about sex, inside and outside relationships.
      • Relationships with non-Christians are a big no-no, but people do it (usually the Christian women, much to my annoyance).
  • These are people trying to find their way in the world.
    • “Strident” pronouncements may hide insecurity.
      • Though sometimes people really mean them, so it’s best to engage with the arguments.
  • Most Christians doubt.
    • But exercise “faith” in the sense of “trust” in a person.
    • “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Why I got out

  • Real life comes as a shock for many student Christians. CICCU/StAG knows this. To graduands, they say:
    • Many of you will “fall away”. (Possibly apocryphal) UCCF surveys give numbers like 50% after 5 years. So…
    • Get into a “church where the Bible is taught”.
    • Don’t get into relationships with non-Christians.
  • Of course, I stayed at StAG and got into a relationship with a Christian woman.
  • But CICCU had taught me that the most important thing was whether Christianity was true, and I slowly became convinced that it wasn’t.
  • Christianity rests on facts: “facts, faith, feelings”
  • The truth shouldn’t depend on who you’re with.
    • Why is it that so many Christians give up if Christianity is so obviously true?
    • “The devil made me do it”: is he stronger than God?
    • Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, chapter 4:

      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.” [Is this sounding familiar?] 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.

  • Here are my reasons. There are others, but these are the ones that did for me:

  • Evangelical morality is sensible in some places and horrible in others.
    • obvious: homosexuality
    • less obvious: anthropology that says everyone’s really bad and deserves Hell.

  • Is God really good? The OT is a problem, the NT perhaps (surprisingly) more so:

    “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.” – A. A. Milne.

    In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”‘ or merely slapping his side & chortling “God, isn’t God a shit!” – Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford. “Randolph” is Randolph Churchill.

    • Evangelicals think the OT massacres are history, and that the Bible accurately records God commanding them, and even telling Israelites off for not finishing the job properly.
    • The other nations around Israel were brutal too, but can an omnipotent God do no better than to have armies slaughter men women and children?
    • The NT is popularly seen as fluffier, but Jesus talks a lot about Hell, as does Paul. As for the book of Revelation…
      • Some respected evangelicals (John Stott) believe that non-believers will be destroyed rather than punished eternally.
      • Some (C.S. Lewis) have adopted a Buddhist idea where “the doors of hell are barred from the inside”. But this seems to conflict with the judicial model of substitutionary atonement. Does God judge us or not?
      • If you push evangelicals, they’ll tell you you’re going to hell, though they might fall back on one of these ideas.
      • Hell makes God seem vindictive (since failing to worship him is the biggest sin), arbitrary (since some people get better evidence than others), and incompetent (since he relies on fallible humans, who do a bad job of evangelism).
  • Problem of suffering
    • Freedom of action is a good thing, but we all recognise limits.
    • Some suffering just seems gratuitous: diseases, natural disasters.
    • Christians don’t have any good answers, they just have a “possibly, therefore probably” argument: God could possibly have a reason, and that’ll do for us.
  • How do I know what’s good without God? Well, how do you know with God (Christians disagree, as do other theists)?
    • Everyone has the problem of where you start from when deciding what is moral, and this includes Christians, whatever they may tell you. Unnecessary suffering seems pretty bad to most people.
    • Assume C.S. Lewis is right and that our moral sense somehow does come from God. But we think it is immoral not to lift a finger to help someone, especially when doing so would have little or no cost to us. Contradiction: either Lewis is wrong, or God isn’t good.

  • Where’s God?
  • Conservative evangelicalism tells you not to expect too many supernatural experiences, the Bible is sufficient.
    • But why not? Can argue about “free will”, but does God care less for your salvation than for the Apostle Paul’s?
  • Evangelicals hate the term “religion” to be applied to their beliefs. True (that is, evangelical) Christianity is a relationship with God, not a religion (by which evangelicals mean “empty rituals trying to earn God’s favour”).
    • But this “relationship” is odd. One party doesn’t talk much, and when he does, the people he’s talked to disagree radically about what he said. As Carrier says, this is not what we’d expect if God really wanted a relationship with us.
    • “Free will” doesn’t work here: Christians actively want some communication from God (especially in the painful throes of doubt).

  • In the end, during an on-line debate with another Christian about some point on the Bible, I realised we were debating about a book, and God either wasn’t there or didn’t care. I stopped going to church in early 2002.
  • It took me over a year to get from there to the point where I’d call myself an atheist.
    • Leaving is hard: sometimes you still want there to be a God.
    • You have told friends you’re a Christian.
    • You’ve even got Christian friends. And girlfriends…
      • That relationship didn’t last (partly because my faith was waning), and when it was over, I realised there was nothing keeping me from admitting my position any more.
  • So here I am.

What I wish I’d known

  • Some of this stuff is blindingly obvious now, and yet…

  • I got in because I read the NT and it sort of made sense to me, so:
    • Don’t believe everything you read.
    • Ask yourself why you feel something is right.
    • The NT has pretty good manuscripts. Most variations are insignificant, but the mere fact of variations ought to give inerrantists pause (see Bart Ehrman‘s books), plus some stuff does seem important: the earliest gospel account of the Resurrection is textually doubtful.
    • Even if a book describes some things accurately, it has not necessarily got all of them right.
    • Evangelicals like to accuse non-Christians of treating the Bible differently from other ancient literature. Herodotus writes history and has dragons in it. Should be believe in dragons?
    • Evangelicals like to say that the origins of Christianity are best explained by the Resurrection, so we cannot treat such accounts differently from other history without begging the question (that is, assuming what we want to prove, namely, that there was no Resurrection). Lessing and the ugly broad ditch:

      “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I.”

      This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.”

    • In fact, evangelicals have not explained why we should treat the Resurrection stories as true if we don’t also accept better attested miracle claims. (Fatima miracle of the Sun, 1917, accompanied by visions of Mary: should we become Catholics?).
  • I got further in because evangelicals had an impressive system for interpreting the Bible.
    • This method seems completely obvious to evangelicals. You probably won’t have much luck convincing them otherwise.
    • Satisfying but closed:
    • Evangelical Bible overviews (such as the one I taught) assume a unity in the Bible. This glosses over a lot of differences.
      • See liberal Christians or Ehrman again.
    • It’s anachronistic:
      • Not the way the church was doing it for many years (allegorical interpretation, see Karen Armstrong, despite her bad rep among atheists). When did true Christianity start again?
      • Not the way the NT writers interpret the OT (see Peter Enns).
    • It’s always possible to make inerrancy work (Quine), however odd it looks from the outside.
      • But it forces you to adopt some twisted interpretations. It’s ironic that people with so much reverence for the Bible end up doing it so much violence.
  • I stayed in because I thought it was right to trust God, that such trust was a virtue.
    • But this transplants our intuition that we should trust friends onto someone whose very existence is in question.
    • We should not change our minds for bad reasons. If we’re depressed, it may look as if God’s not there, and if we’re happy, we may think he is. But…
    • We change our minds less often than we think, because we see ourselves as fighting for our chosen side (atheists are not immune to this). Eliezer Yudkowsky:

      Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.

    • Yudkowsky is good. Read his stuff.
  • I stayed in because I didn’t know what was outside.
    • People who aren’t your friends if you leave weren’t your friends anyway.
      • Not that this is necessarily a failing on their part: we all have acquaintances we wouldn’t see if we didn’t do some particular activity.
    • Your world does not collapse into chaos if you leave.
      • Unless you’re prepared to really work at it by being stupid. So don’t do that then.
    • If there isn’t a God, then this, here, now, is what a world without a God looks like. Eugene Gendlin:

      What is true is already so.
      Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
      Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
      And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
      Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
      People can stand what is true,
      for they are already enduring it.

There was a question and answer session afterwards. I remember some questions along the lines of:<lj-cut>

Why didn’t you realise it was nonsense, you’re a scientist? What about carbon dating?

I wasn’t a young earth creationist, and neither the CU nor my church said I should be. In fact, YEC and ID weren’t particularly popular among Cambridge evangelicals back then (though some people did believe them). I don’t know whether British evangelicalism has changed under the influence of America in recent years.

The problem is not so much that intelligent Christians directly contradict science, but that they make up additions which aren’t backed by evidence.

Was it OK to have doubts as a CICCU person?

Yes. Churches and CUs expect it, things like prayer triplets provide an environment where such doubts can be expresssed. What they don’t really expect is for people to doubt successfully. At the end of it all, they should still come out an evangelical.

What’s the disagreement I’ve noticed between CICCU and college chapels?

It’s historical: CICCU got very evangelical in response to the SCM’s liberalism. College chaplains didn’t like CICCU because of demarcation. Still, it depends on who’s running the college CICCU group and who’s running the chapel that year: sometimes they get along just fine.

Would you agree now that Christianity isn’t intellectually satisfying?

Yes and no. Yes: borrowing from Kuhn again, evangelical Christianity is a paradigm in which it’s possible to get useful things done, according to the paradigm’s ideas of what is useful. Those things are satisfying: learning more about the Bible is intellectually satisfying, seeing people become Christians is emotionally satisfying, and so on.

No: because I wasn’t satisfied, and I’ve yet to be convinced that any Christian arguments hold up. (My questioner said he’d kept going to CICCU talks thinking this time he’d hear a good argument. I think I rashly praised Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, which caused a bit of a stir: maybe there weren’t that many CICCU people there after all).

On Craig: has someone won a debate if they’re wrong?

You can admit Craig wins debates without thereby being compelled to become a Christian. His opponents aren’t wrong (IMHO), they just fail to make their case (usually). As scribb1e said later, you don’t call something a proof in mathematics if it’s invalid, even if the result turns out to be true. Arguments are not soldiers, again.

Consider yourself lucky you got out so young. Do you feel relieved? Do you miss it?

I miss aspects of it: the working towards a common cause already mentioned; the singing; the feeling that everything’s under control. But yes, I was very relieved not to have to struggle any more with it. I think I wasted an awful lot of time worrying about stuff which wasn’t worth worrying about. I’d hate anyone else to do the same: hence the web page.

Thanks to CUAAS for inviting me and giving me pizza. I had fun, and I hope my listeners did too.

Edited: Rave reviews continue to pour in. Well, William liked it, anyway, and has some observations on “atheist societies” to boot.

I’m giving a talk to the Cambridge University Atheist and Agnostic Society tomorrow, Monday 19th October, at 7.30 pm in the Union Society building (the one behind the Round Church). Apparently it’s £1 for non-members, a bargain if ever I saw one.

I’ll cover some of the ground covered by my Losing My Religion essay, with a bit more of a Cambridge focus. I think they’re hoping for some dark secrets about CICCU, which is unfortunate, because as far as I know there aren’t any (anyone who knows different is invited to leave a comment below), but I’ll do my best.

Edited: I’ve blogged my notes and what I remember of the Q&A after the talk.

The Thursday crew were down a couple of people, so we decided it’d be a good time to run a one-off of Dogs in the Vineyard (mentioned previously here).

The Dogs are young men and women sent to the frontier towns established by the Faith (which isn’t quite Mormonism), to bring practical and spiritual help to the community. Sometimes it’s the sort of help that comes from the barrel of a gun. After the basic character generation stuff, the game starts with each player saying what they hoped their character accomplished in training, leading to a conflict where the GM takes one side and the player the other, and the character gains another character trait as a result. All the conflicts in the game are like poker matches with dice, with each side having a pool of dice for raising and seeing.

Dramatis Personae

Brother Jeb, played by Tom who jacquic knows: ex-thief who converted to the Faith. At 30, he’s a bit older than the other Dogs, who are in their late teens/early 20s. Jeb hopes he can beat a demon. He wakes up in the middle of the night having sleep-walked into the storeroom of the Doghouse, mysteriously left unlocked. Whispers in his head are tempting him to steal the valuables in the storeroom but he spots something like a shadow in the corner and throws some sacred earth (which is also in the storeroom) at it. Brother Jeb got a trait of “I exorcised a demon”.

Brother Isaac, played by Rob who is not robhu: child of converts, very strictly brought up on an isolated farm, tends to see things in black and white. Hopes he can learn something about the real world. As suggested in the rules, Rob played Brother Isaac before the change his player wanted, and scribb1e played the thing trying to make him change. Isaac follows a thief who steals fruit from a stall in Bridal Falls (which isn’t quite Salt Lake City) and finds he’s taken it to his home to feed his starving family. Great raises and sees: Isaac: “You should have gone to the Faith for help”, Thief: “You’re the Faith, you help” (what the rules call Reversing the Blow). scribb1e ran out of dice and Isaac’s player narrated how Isaac makes the man take the stuff back and then Isaac buys him food instead. At Tom’s suggestion, Isaac got a trait of “There’s always a perfectly reasonable solution”.

Brother Ezra, played by me: 3rd generation Faithful, brought up on a big farm with brothers and sisters all over the place. Overcompensates to get attention. Ezra already had “I was top in Sunday school” as trait, so I decided Ezra shoots scripture from the hip and thinks that can solve anything. I wanted him to learn some humility. The conflict played out in the Faith’s hospital, where he tried not very successfully to comfort a dying girl with words from the Book of Life. She died, and he got “I can’t do everything by myself”. He took quite a lot of fallout, which lead to a relationship to the dead girl, and a bump to his “Heart” stat.

The town, played by scribb1e, was the rule book’s Tower Creek example with the names filed off as scribb1e knew I’d read the rule book. Tower Creek is recommended for new players as it’s hairy: it goes all the way to hate and murder in the Something’s Wrong progression, stopping off for some adultery and false priesthood along the way. In our version, it was called Dove Hill. Brother Ezra has a great aunt there, Sister Polly, and Brother Isaac has a cousin, Celestina.

Dove Hill

<lj-cut text=”Cut for demons, miscarriage, adultery, and mayhem”>The Dogs ride in to Dove Hill and end up at the Steward’s place. He’s asking for a blessing on his wife, who can’t conceive. The players think he’s talking about Sister Eleanor, who’s with him, but it turns out he’s also married to Sister Celestina, and she’s the one who can’t have kids. The Steward has 3 daughters by Eleanor who are married off, but hopes for a son to run the farm. The Faith allows polygamy (but not polyandry) but Eleanor doesn’t approve: Celestina is an interloper and young and pretty to boot.

Ezra and Isaac go with Eleanor to the local creek and find Celestina. They split up to have private conversations with each woman. Eleanor tries to persuade Ezra that Celestina should be made to divorce the Steward: the lack of children shows the King of Life doesn’t favour the marriage. There’s a conflict but Ezra knows that the Book of Life says the King of Life hates divorce, and he wins easily.

Isaac talks to his cousin. Celestina says that Eleanor won’t leave her and the Steward alone together, which makes the whole conceiving thing a bit tricky.

Back at the Steward’s place, before the Dogs can get into this, there’s a knock on the door. Sister Maria wants something, and holds a whisphered conversation with the Steward. “You can’t ask them to do that, it’s wrong”, he exclaims. “That” turns out to be naming Maria’s baby. Fine: it’s one of the duties of a Dog. The only problem is the baby is dead. Stillborn, and buried in a pathetically small grave near the meeting house. The players hew pretty closely to the Mormon idea of baptism for the dead, even though the rules allow them to make up the Faith as they go along. There’s no conflict as all the Dogs decide they’ll perform the naming ceremony over the grave, and do so post haste. Ezra decides to name the baby Grace. Maria sings “Amazing Grace”, and it’s kind of poignant.

On the way back, the Dogs meet Brother Nathan, the local lawman. He wants them to carry out a wedding. Fine: it’s one of the duties. But he actually wants them to confirm a wedding that Sister Polly carried out, between him and Sister Celestina. Turns out Nathan and Celestina were having an affair, and Polly got it into her head that the best way to deal with it was to marry them: after all, a man can have two wives, so why can’t a woman have two husbands? Ezra and Isaac win a conflict with Nathan on whether they’ll promise to do the wedding.

Meanwhile, Jeb wanders away from the lawman for some reason, and finds Polly’s house. She admits to the wedding, but says she was just trying to do the right thing. She tries to persuade Jeb to leave town as nothing good can come of the Dogs’ presence, but loses the conflict: Dogs have a duty to sort this stuff out.

The Dogs sleep in the Steward’s haybarn. Jeb is awoken by the feeling he got when the demons attacked him in the storeroom. He tracks it past the Steward’s house and thinks it’s gone to Polly’s place. The conflict here was odd: the stakes were “Do I track the demon?”, but scribb1e and Tom weren’t too sure how to raise and see in this metaphysical conflict. scribb1e gave away more of the location each time she had to block, which seemed wrong: if she’d taken the blow or Jeb had reversed it, maybe. Anyhoo, Jeb came back for the other Dogs. It was morning by now, and they all rushed over to Aunt Polly’s.

Jeb continued to experience the Reek of Wrongness about the place, but the other Dogs sense nothing, and just see an old lady in her nightgown. Maybe she’s in danger. They rush inside. It’s a one room house with no visible demons. Hmmm… Jeb asks Polly to hold his Book of Life for him, but she demurs. Uh oh. We kick off a conflict with stakes of “Do we find out what’s going on?”, which escalates suddenly when Polly becomes possessed and starts flinging kitchen knives. At this point, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, and we decide we’ve probably got the stakes wrong. scribb1e reckons she should have just narrated us finding out Polly’s a sorceror and then let us decide what to do as a conflict. As it was, when Jeb accused Polly of invoking the demons to try to help Celestina, scribb1e gave way: we’d worked out what was going on.

We were running out of time and didn’t want to start a follow on conflict. Jeb’s all in favour of shooting Polly, but Ezra’s reluctant to shoot his old aunt, even if she’s been summoning demons which, rather then helping Celestina get pregnant, have been causing miscarriages and stillbirths. Just for fun, Ezra’s the only one with a sidearm (the other two have long rifles which are back in the barn) so there could even have been some conflict between the Dogs.

We’d decided Nathan can’t marry Celestina because it’d be condoning adultery, and their marriage was invalid in any case, because Polly’s a false priest. scribb1e reckoned Nathan might try to leave the Faith and take Celestina with him, but we never played that out.

In the end, we had to stop as it had gone midnight, but alas, the juicy conflicts were still to be played out. lumpley recommends against spending too much time with everything shrouded in mystery: the fun in Dogs is resolving the impossible situations, not in working out who’s sinning against whom. I don’t think scribb1e did too much of the mystery stuff, but we did spent a while resolving the initial conflicts where everyone in town wants to persuade the Dogs to back their side.

I think another hour would have enabled us to sort the sinners out to our satisfaction, and that more practice at the game would have enabled us to sort out stakes for conflicts better. We spent some time sorting out how the rules worked, too. The co-operative story telling was interesting. scribb1e said that GMing it felt not too dissimilar to being a player, and indeed it was Tom (in his initiatiory conflict) who turned the supernatural dial up from demons as bad luck to demons having some visible presence, albeit as shadows where none should be. I enjoyed it and liked the poker raise/see mechanic for conflicts, even if it wasn’t clear how to use it for conflicts which weren’t with a particular person. Would play again.

livredor did a post on getting into Oxford, inspired by j4‘s original posting. It’s almost a meme. So, here goes. Contains a picture of an 18 year old pw201, so cut for decency 🙂

Portrait of the artist as a young man

The artist as a young manI was bright and incredibly geeky at secondary school (that’s school for 11 to 16 year olds). I went to St Bede’s, a church school. This wasn’t because my family are particularly religious, but because I was ill at around age 11 and they wanted me to go somewhere with a good reputation for pastoral care, and wanted a school which was smaller than the local comprehensive. St Bede’s didn’t have a Sixth Form (that’s the optional bit of school for 16 to 18 year olds, which is sometimes provided by the same place that does 11-16, sometimes not), but after some to-ing and fro-ing, I got a place at Hills Road Sixth Form College.

At the time, Hills Road had a reputation for being one of the more academic schools in Cambridge. In retrospect, the environment was a bridge to university: the pupils had chosen to be there and were pretty bright, there was no school uniform or, thank God, compulsory Physical Education lessons, and a lot of the lessons were fairly traditional chalk-and-talk affairs, a bit like lectures.

I loved the place. I took A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and an AS level in Further Maths. The lessons were taught by university graduates in the subjects, often with PhDs. I enjoyed my subjects (although I started to get a bit bored of Chemistry later on) and responded to the enthusiasm of the teachers. In particular, Dr M, the physics teacher, had a great way of explaining stuff and made the subject enjoyable. I began to consider studying physics at university.

Hills Road had a good library, and I spent a lot of time reading books, stuff like Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, as well as the print version of the New Hacker’s Dictionary. The latter introduced me to the idea that there were other people who found doing stuff with computers fun, and in fact, there was a whole culture associated with it. It wasn’t quite enough to sway me from physics, but it did show me I wasn’t alone.

Wondering where to go

I suppose I started to consider Cambridge after my teachers saw my results from the mock exams we did at the end of the first year and told me I should 🙂 For a state school, Hills Road sent a lot of people to Oxbridge, and they were well set up to provide the coaching for the entrance exams. Being fundamentally lazy (one of the virtues of a programmer), I thought I’d like to continue to study in Cambridge (we didn’t live in Cambridge, so I wouldn’t be on my parents’ doorstep), and that I didn’t really want to do any more exams than I had to. There was the business of picking a college, but Churchill seemed like a good idea: it was modern (so undergraduates could walk on the grass and didn’t wear gowns for meals), it focused on science and engineering (so there’d be lots of people to talk to about that, I thought), it was close to the Cavendish, and it didn’t use the STEP exam, only A Level results and interviews, to offer places.

I went to open days for other places, which occasionally involved a chat with the faculty, but it wasn’t much like an interview. Southampton gave me a two E offer (lots of universities would do that to Oxbridge applicants, hoping to catch someone good if they missed their A level grades), but I liked the look of York, so that was my second choice after Cambridge. I have vague memories of an open day at Churchill, but stronger ones of the interview, later.


Oxford and Cambridge were, and are, two of the few universities in the UK which interview applicants, rather than reading their personal statements on the centralised application form. Like everything else about Oxbridge, there were legends about the interview: the rugby ball thrown from behind the door, the interviewer who looked over his newspaper and said “Do something interesting” (the candidate set light to it), the quirky questions, slightly crazy dons, and so on. I was a little bit nervous.

There were two interviews in the course of the day, as well as lunch with actual students. The first interview was for your subject, the second was more of what, if it were a job interview, would have been the HR interview. I don’t recall much about lunch with the other candidates: as I was reasonably local I didn’t stay in college, so I didn’t meet many of them.

Dr G did the subject interview, which I actually recall enjoying. There were some questions on orbits and gravity, which went OK. Then he pulled out a Crookes radiometer and asked me whether I’d seen it before (which I hadn’t). So he shone a light on it and asked how it worked. Better than that, he asked me to ask him about it, as part of working it out. So I asked whether it works if the bulb is completely evacuated and he said “no”, so it’s not light pressure (which is actually far too small an effect, it turns out), and I noticed the vanes are dark on one side and light on the other, and so it went, until I got to the standard, not quite right, explanation. We talked about the Penrose book a bit, too.

I remember nothing of the other interview, with the college’s admissions tutor, other than that he asked what I’d say to convince him of my enthusiasm for physics, and didn’t seem that impressed that I’d read a few books. He can’t have been completely unimpressed, I suppose.

A little later a letter turned up informing me a had a place at Churchill, conditional on three grade A’s at A level. When the A Level results came out that summer, I knew I was off to Cambridge. I remember having some misgivings about it. Like many of the big transitions which for which we get some prior warning, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like on the other side. Still, I was hardly going to back out now.


Hepworth, by wikipedia user DmnMy memories of the first term involve being tired and cold and a little lost. Cold because the first years got the rooms which nobody else wanted, so mine wasn’t particularly warm.

Tired because the programme for first year Natural Sciences students was punishing: lectures typically started at 9 am (including Saturdays), and they’d be followed in the afternoon by laboratory teaching. Supervisions and doing problem sheets in preparation for them fitted in around this, maybe a spare afternoon or evening. Lectures weren’t compulsory, but unlike the arts subjects, in Natural Sciences they more or less covered the exam syllabus for that year, so they seemed like the best way of learning the material.

Lost because for the first time I was a small fish in a big pond. I wasn’t the best by a long shot, sometimes I felt I was struggling to keep up. Most of my friends had been to state schools, but some people on the course had done more maths than me (vital for physicists), and some had further tuition from their private schools.

Most of my reasons for choosing Churchill turned out to be mistaken. Being near to the Cavendish wasn’t helpful, as the lectures were in the centre of Cambridge that year (it came into its own in the third year, where the lectures were at the lab). Few people at Churchill wanted to talk shop in the precious moments when we weren’t actively engaged in our courses. In my group of friends, we’d start an earnest parody of a customer/shopkeeper conversation if one of our number started doing it: “Hello Sir, What Can I Do For You?” “I’d Like A Pound Of Apples Please” “Certainly, Sir” etc. (this sort of thing partly explained why we found it so hard to meet girls, I suspect, the more important reason being that there weren’t that many of them at Churchill, a side effect of the science/engineering bias I’d not considered). I did like the informality of the place, but I envied the sheer Hogwartsness of the older colleges in the summer, as we punted by them on the river. Still, at least at Churchill we didn’t have to go across a freezing quad to go to the loo.

Things started looking better in the Christmas vacation (Cambridge, like America, refers to time away as a vacation). We’d been given past exam papers to do, and to my surprise, I discovered that with enough sleep and free from the stress of the NatSci schedule, I could do them. I returned with renewed confidence that they probably were right to let me in after all.

The improving weather lifted my mood and made Churchill’s overwhelmingly brown architecture look less grim. At these times, even Christians find their thoughts turning to women in floral print dresses. Previously, we’d tended to socialise in a largely male group of Churchillians, going to the Union Society (where I first heard Richard Dawkins speak) or to my friend PJR’s room, as he tended to accumulate the latest and greatest music and video (I remember a couple of examples: my envy that he had a laser disc player that took discs the size of LPs; and my initial scepticism when he said he was a fan of Kylie Minogue, as I’d not realised that she’d just re-invented herself). One day, though, my friend APW recommended ballroom dancing in no uncertain terms: “You get to hold women”, he said. The rest is history.

Summing up and application

For me, getting in to Cambridge was an illustration of what the very best of the UK’s state school system can do for you. Hills Road was so good that I knew people who’d come there out of the private school livredor went to, their parents presumably calculating that there was no point paying for something they might get for free. I was also lucky in having parents who could help financially. This was in the era after grants, when you needed a loan to live on (I left in debt, but not as much as I would have otherwise).

I was aware of people there who matched the upper-class twit stereotype, but as a scientist in an out-of-town, brown-brick college, they didn’t have much to do with me. I met a mix of people. I was lectured by some people I’d heard of. Most importantly, I found a niche outside of my college and subject, which is an important trick for staying sane (a couple of niches, in fact, the Christian Union and the dancers). Cambridge is huge and full of bright people, some a little shy or strange, trying to make a place where they fit. I am sure there are people who don’t find a such a place, but from my experience, you’d have to try quite hard.

People who post D&D campaign reports to their blogs: death’s too good for ’em, I say. I think I’ll make an exception for this one of scribb1e‘s, though.


‘Antea, in stipendia Roberti, dicerem: ἀποθανεῑν δεν θέλω; respondebat dominus ludorum: alea iacta est.’

<lj-cut text=”The burial of the undead”>
I. The burial of the undead

Hathel is the cruellest month, breeding
Kobolds out of the undead land, mixing
Duty and revenge, stirring
Dire weasels with spring rain.
Joe kept us warm, lighting
A fire in the clearing, feeding
Us with rabbit stew and tubers
Iliriel surprised us, coming up from Arlin
With the falling night; we stopped at the camp
And went on in sunlight, into the castle,
And were shot at, and talked for a minute.
Bin gar kein Kobold, stamm’ aus Arlin, echt Elvish.
And when we were safe, inside the castle,
We climbed the tower with rickety stairs
And we were frightened. We said, Terseus,
Terseus, hold on tight. But down he went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
We watch, much of the night, and clear up the corpses in the morning.

What are the oozes that grapple, what beasts lurk
In this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken mages, who cannot divine
And the trees give no shelter, and the DM no relief
And the dry fountain no sound of water. Only
There is a secret door under this rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
And I will show you something different from either
Skeletons at morning jumping out behind you
Or zombies at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of rust.

Wo ist meine Rüstung?
Was haben sie getan?
Sie haben es gegessen
Das war rücksichtslos.

‘You engulfed me first a moment ago
They called me the shimmering man’
– Yet when you moved on, later, to engulf another
Your flanks full, and my hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my strength failed
, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the corridor, the shadows.
Ich von Panik erfaßt werde.

scribb1e writes:

The Waste Land seems remarkably easy to do this to. Either because great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation, or because it’s a bunch of easily-imitated, pretentious twaddle.

Apart from scribb1e‘s, the greatest parodies of the poem are Wendy Cope’s and ladysisyphus‘s Harry Potter version.