Link blog: C, greg-bear, programming, weapons

Embedded in Academia : A Quiz About Integers in C
“The C language’s rules for integer operations have some quirks that can make even small programs behave in confusing ways. This post is a review of these rules in the form of a quiz containing 20 questions.” I did OK except on the ones about shifts.
(tags: arithmetic integer C programming)
Sword Fighting with Neal Stephenson and His Mongoliad Co-Authors
Including Greg Bear, apparently.
(tags: mongoliad weapons history sword greg-bear neal-stephenson)

Africa needs God?

Mattghg and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, both linked to Matthew Parris’s article As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

Parris is an atheist who writes admiringly not just of the work done by Christians in Africa, but of the changes conversion brings about in people, supplanting a tribal mindset he regards as unhealthy.

Matt also links to (but rightly criticises) a response to Parris by Stephen Noll, who writes for something called Anglican Mainstream. Noll’s article makes a couple of good points and then veers off into a parody of the Daily Mail, telling Parris that he should reflect on how atheism has lead Britain into darkness, and rounding off with the threat of the UK being over-run by Islam. I’ve not really been keeping up with who’s been anathemising whom in Anglicanism lately, because it’s all a bit tedious, but I’m assuming that something called “Anglican Mainstream” is actually a fundy schismatic organisation, much like a “People’s Republic” is always a communist dictatorship.

It’s odd that Noll thinks Theodore Dalrymple supports his claims about Britain, because in the article Noll links to, Dr Dalrymple doesn’t prescribe a dose of God: he says Brits were civilised and are now being un-civilised by intellectual activity and legislation (presumably they believed in God throughout the civilisation phase), and speaks fondly of a time when Brits regarded religious enthusiasm (a term which once referred to evangelicalism) as bad form.

Strangely enough, I’ve already quoted Dalrymple in a statement which will probably get my Dawkins Club membership card confiscated, namely, that faith groups in prisons are OK if they introduce prisoners to a culture which is less broken than the one they belong to already. This pragmatism is a reflection of my devotion to the ideas of Neal Stephenson, I suppose. (Of course, the faith groups needn’t be theistic: Buddhism can do the job, too).

It’s an annoying fact that religions are better at spreading than rationality is, as Andrew Brown points out. Christianity, or at least the right sort of Christianity, certainly isn’t the worst belief system out there. If a dose of God will displace tribalism or nihilism (which, pace Noll, isn’t equivalent to atheism), it seems like the lesser of two evils, to me.

Is it inconsistent for me to say this and also write stuff about how Christianity is wrong? I don’t think so: I’d always want to help someone to become a rationalist, which is the goal of the stuff I write. But I’m trying to be realistic about the prospect of that happening to someone who’s starting from less than zero. Evangelical Christianity is infectious and can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se. We can use that 🙂

Overcoming Bias: how can we obtain beliefs closer to reality?

Some of you already read Overcoming Bias, the blog of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute (I’ve seen gjm11 commenting there, and wildeabandon mentioned it, I think). I’ve been reading quite a bit of the archives recently, as evidence by the number of comments I’ve made referring to old postings there.

The bias of the title is cognitive bias, the psychological term for systematic mistakes human minds tend to make. The purpose of the blog is self-help and social change: “If we know the common patterns of error or self-deception, maybe we can work around them ourselves, or build social structures for smarter groups. We know we aren’t perfect, and can’t be perfect, but trying is better than not trying.”

Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the main contributors there. He’s an interesting character: heavily invested in ideas about the Singularity and Friendly AI. His stuff on Overcoming Bias touches on those interests, but is worthwhile even if you consider such ideas silly (I’m not sure whether I do or not at this point: my instinctive reaction that this stuff is far-fetched may be an example of bias).

What I like about his writing is that it’s usually clear and incisive. He shows a passion for reason (contrary to Star Trek, a passion for reason isn’t a contradiction in terms) and almost a reverence for it. You get the feeling that his SF stuff about Bayesian masters undergoing the Ritual Of Changing One’s Mind isn’t just an illustrative analogy. Coming so soon after I read Anathem, I see the blog as one place where this world’s avout hang out. Stuff like Diax’s Rake would be right up their alley.

livredor once told me that one of my biases is to latch on to someone very clever and align my beliefs to theirs (I think this bias is a common one among technical people who have taught themselves some philosophy). So I ought to be a little careful when I read his stuff. Yudkowsky’s faults are that he’s also self-taught, so needs his (likewise very clever) commenters to point out that he’s covering old ground, has missed out on the standard arguments against his position, or is not using the standard definitions of some terms (such as the case where he argues his moral views are not moral relativism, for example). Some of the postings where he talks about how he used to think a whole load of wrong stuff and now doesn’t can get tedious (ahem). In some cases he’s made extended series of posts where I don’t understand the conclusion he’s trying to draw (the series on morality is an example).

Still, I’m very much enjoying articles like his articles on staging a Crisis of Faith (which isn’t ultimately about losing religious faith, but about changing long-held opinions. It’s good introduction to the blog as a whole, as there are links to many other good articles at the bottom of it), Cached Thoughts, Are Your Enemies Innately Evil? (shades of Bartlet’s “They weren’t born wanting to do this” there), Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points, Belief in Belief (not quite your standard Dennett argument); and his argument that Elijah conducted the original scientific experiment.

I recommend the blog to you lot. If you like reading blogs on LJ, you can find it at overcomingbias.

Book: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is Neal Stephenson’s latest novel. Told in the first person, it’s the story of Erasmus, a young member of a monastic order dedicated to philosophy and science. Erasmus lives on Arbre, a world rather like our own. The monks aren’t religious (quite the reverse, for the most part), but their monasteries use many of the trappings of religious orders, like ritual, sung music, a set of rules of discipline, and seclusion from the outside world. It’s not a boy’s club, though: male and female monks mix within the monastery, and certain kinds of relationship are allowed by the discipline.

The monks are grouped according to how often they have contact with the outside world, which can be every 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years. As the story starts, it’s just before a 10 year Apert, where the 1 and 10 year monks will mingle with the populace for 10 days. Erasmus, a “tenner”, finds the monastery’s astronomical observatory closed, and gets the first hints that the secular and monastic authorities are conspiring to keep a pretty big secret. Together with his cohort of young monks, he gets drawn into solving the mystery.

Saunt Descartes was a drunken fart

In the early part of the book, Stephenson draws the reader into the world of Erasmus’s monastery. He uses the common SF trick of making up words for things: the monks are the “avout”, the outsiders “saecular”, the monasteries are “concents”. Some people don’t like this sort of thing, but for the most part I was content to let this wash over me as part of the book’s scene setting, the measured pace of which parallels the life of the avout. (There’s also a glossary at the back, which helps). The avout are serious seekers of knowledge who learn the stories of theoreticians as religious monks might learn about the lives of saints (the avout word for a great thinker is “saunt”, a contraction of “savant”). They engage in debates which are intellectual duels, the sort of stuff you get in the better debating places on and off-line. Stephenson has placed real philosophy in the book under the names of the saunts who thought of it on Arbre: it’s fun to try to work out the real world analogues, among whom are Plato, Faraday, Occam, and Einstein. The philosophy isn’t just there for show, it becomes important later: Stephenson is the second SF author I’ve come across who has written a story which hinges on the idea of the Platonic world of forms (the other is Greg Egan).

Modern life is rubbish

In comparison with the concents, the saecular world Erasmus encounters in the 10 days of Apert is unthinkingly religious and commercialised, a parody of modern American society right down to the thugs in sportswear (anyone who remembers the thetes in The Diamond Age might think that Stephenson has a thing about this) and the drugs which keep everyone happy but somehow blunted. Erasmus observes several times that clever people tend to end up inside the walls of the concents. The book seems to describe a vicious circle of anti-intellectualism leading to the intellectuals hiding away, leading to further distrust of intellectualism in the outside world, which eventually leads to the concents being sacked every few thousand years. The initial retreat into concents happened because of some cataclysmic events in the past. You can see Stephenson drawing on A Canticle for Leibowitz here, with the difference that the avout aren’t just preserving old books they don’t understand.

The first part of the story is a more erudite version of a Harry Potter book, with the young avout (Erasmus is 18 as the story starts) ranging over the old stone buildings they live in, talking about philosophy and science, and finding ways around authority with the help of some wiser older monks. We see more of the saecular world as Erasmus is thrust into it in the later part of the book, and finds that things aren’t a total cultural desert out there. Stephenson dislikes the unthinkingly religious and so Erasmus does too, but the religious contemplatives that Erasmus meets show the other side of Stephenson’s opinions, where religion provides people with a code which keeps them from the feckless behaviour of most people outside the concents.

Ninja monks in space

The final part of the book is page-turning SF stuff with ninja monks in space, a long way from Erasmus’s quiet life as the book begins. Stephenson draws the philosophical threads from earlier in the book into a satisfying conclusion. The popular notion that he can’t write endings was disproved by The System of the World, but sceptics will be pleased to hear that Anathem has an ending too.

A positive effect of the narrator’s voice is that the book is less frenetically digressive than Stephenson’s earlier stuff. Some of Stephenson’s wild tangents are fun (my favourite is the wisdom tooth removal in Cryptonomicon), but they make his books longer without advancing the plot. At about 900 pages, Anathem is long, but most of it is world-building or action (if you count the philosophy stuff we’re going to need for the later revelations as “world-building”). Other reviewers have complained it’s slow to get going, but the avout are sympathetic characters, so I didn’t mind reading about their lives at the start of the book. I think it’d be quite cool to be one of them, in fact.

Anathem is a fun mix of philosophy and action. Recommended to people who read the sort of stuff I write here on LJ 🙂

Are Christians privileged in the UK?

There’s a discussion about that question attached to a posting from the toothycats. One of the toothycats (who are a couple with a shared blog) posted an entry about their Christian beliefs, which promptly exploded into religion_wank (why does that community not exist already?) after lark_ascending turned up, and, angered by a toothcat‘s oppressive action of posting about an interest of theirs on their blog under a cut, started a huge argument (she later experienced drama remorse and deleted fracking everything, but there’s an archive of some of the thread here). I’m unable to resist this sort of thing, so I’ve stuck my oar in here and there.

I can see the point of these privilege checklists which circulate on the net. You don’t know what it’s like to be someone else. If you’re someone who has it good, you may assume that everyone has it equally good. Checklists are a reminder that this assumption isn’t valid.

If you’re not careful though, what you can get out of in a discussion of privilege is black and white thinking (if you’ll pardon the pun) where you insist that someone must be oppressed because they belong to a group you’ve identified as under-privileged, regardless of anything that person says about it. This has happened to a couple of LJ friends, but it doesn’t happen to me very often, because I’m male, middle-class and white so nobody (except Daily Fail readers) would argue that I’m discriminated against. Nevertheless, I am a non-Christian, and I’m not being oppressed. The situation in the UK isn’t like it is in some parts of the USA, so checklists from there aren’t portable.

The other thing I didn’t like about the list that everyone’s been doing as a meme on their blogs lately is that some of it effectively asks “do you come from a healthy culture?” and might, if handled badly, cause people who do to feel bad about that. It’s no credit to you where you were born, of course, but neither do you want the situation where you can’t say that to be from such a culture is a good thing, worth having. A privilege, in fact.

Ethics Gradient

lisekit has a discussion on novels, religion and relativism in religion. She says that, where religion is concerned, she doesn’t like to say that anyone’s views are more or less valuable than anyone else’s. This set me thinking about the idea of relativism in general (which lisekit isn’t advocating, lest I accuse her of it, as she mentions respect and tolerance as moral virtues).

I seem to have been brainwashed by Neal Stephenson into believing that strict relativism is undesirable because it does not work. If you cannot say one thing is better than another, the only sin left is hypocrisy (and, perhaps, intolerance 🙂 In a sense I’m a relativist, since I don’t believe in absolutes imposed by a deity, but in another sense, that of refusing to say that one thing is better than another, I am not. In morality, say, I advocate things which I believe will lead to a society which I hope will be a good one for myself and people I care for. In religion, I would like to see well-reasoned disagreement between people who do think their viewpoint is the right one but are prepared to learn from others. Better that than the pop-culture spirituality which accepts everything that feels good (poor Greg Egan’s disgust for that sort of thing in Silver Fire makes me think he’s forgotten what G.K. Chesterton said happens to people who stop believing in God). Stephenson again:


The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And–again–perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you’ve got some tools.

In this country, the people who run things–who populate major law firms and corporate boards–understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they don’t raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way.
In the Beginning was the Command Line

(The rest of Stephenson’s essay is a huge digression on technology and culture, seen through the lens of the Windows/Unix clash: it’s well worth reading if you’ve an hour to spare).

I suppose I’m back to morality as enlightened self-interest again: the reason these people are inculcating their children in their particular culture is because those cultures work, and they want their children to be happy, fulfilled and all that stuff. There are cultures which don’t, and I’ll gladly preach the superiority of those which work over those which don’t, as it’s in my own interest to do so.