tommorris.org

Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


idiocy


Churches weigh in on mitochondrial replacement

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches are opposing mitochondrial replacement, a promising new development in embryology that could potentially prevent a variety of diseases by transferring the nucleus of the mother’s egg into a donor cell which has healthy mitochondria.

The Catholic Church’s position on this is ludicrous. In order to protect the “life” of poppy-seed sized embryos, it is willing to subject children to extravagant amount of pain and suffering. Why? Here’s their reasoning.

Many people are rightly concerned about the profound implications of Parliament passing regulations under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to licence the creation of human embryos using the DNA of three people.

Who are these “many people”? And how many of them aren’t middle-aged men in priestly drag? And that “DNA of three people” thing. The mitochondrial DNA from the third donor as a proportion of the total DNA in a human’s genome is absolutely tiny. But we are talking about people who put the rights of poppy-seed sized “babies” on a level of moral equivalence with beings that have actual rights, interests and concerns in the world.

No other country has allowed this procedure and the international scientific community is not convinced that the procedure is safe and effective.

There have been a number of reviews conducted of the proposed treatment which have failed to turn up any evidence that it is unsafe. As actual use in humans is not licensed, and no clinical trials can be conducted (partly because of of the massive ethical problems of doing a double-blind controlled study involving fertilisation), there won’t be a way to know if it is effective unless one actually goes ahead and tries it.

The document from the Catholic Church brings up the fact that the US FDA has not approved this treatment. That might be in part because during the time of President Bush, the government pushed through so many measures to prevent any of this sort of embryological research, guided by the advice of the President’s Council on Bioethics, a body replete with the medical and biological expertise of, oh, Charles Krauthammer, Francis Fukuyama and Robert P. George. Religious nutters take over the bioethical establishment in the US, pushes through an anti-scientific agenda that makes climate for research in these areas toxic, then argues for bans in other countries based on their successful takeover of the regulatory agenda across the Atlantic.

There are also serious ethical objections to this procedure which involves the destruction of human embryos as part of the process.

What “serious ethical objections”? Spell them out, my dear, otherwise they cannot be judged as serious or not. Because frankly the likelihood of the Catholic Church having a serious ethical objection rather than a ludicrously overheated pile of theological garbage is pretty low.

When embryologists start barging into arguments on soteriology and pneumatology, theologians will have the right to barge into arguments about human fertilisation. Given the pitiful track record of ethical interventions from the church in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics—which basically amounts to a noxious mixture of spreading fear-driven bullshit about every other in-vitro fertilisation technology ever proposed combined with their attempt at opposing every extension of rights to LGBT people—I’m not sure why anyone thinks that what they have to say is worth a damn. They have no useful contribution to make to this discussion, just pseudoscience and theologically-driven fear mongering. Their only notable contribution is to the pain and suffering of children born with rare mitochondrial diseases that could potentially be prevented by careful use of scientific innovation.


Professional moron and banana enthusiast Kirk Cameron has gone full Westboro:

God hates gay people. God hates fags, and you’re going to hell.

What it lacks in ‘love thy neighbour’ it makes up in honesty I guess. The whole “love the sinner hate the sin” thing has always been such disingenuous bollocks.


It looks like we have a preacher blaming Hurricane Sandy on gay marriage. Phew. That clears that up.


Oppression, identity and sexuality

Oh yeah, what a lovely, academic-ish name for a post. It’d be even better if it had a colon afterwards, then a subtitle starting with the word “towards”. Oppression, identity and sexuality: towards a poststructuralist hermeneutic of something or other.

See, I don’t like talking about who I am, I like talking about what I do and what I think. So, I was born in the county of Surrey. Big deal. I could have been born in Wiltshire instead if I had been born a few years earlier. Or maybe Somerset. This is all very uninteresting, and is rarely a topic of conversation except with the people who issue passports.1

The same is true for my atheism: if there were no religious people, no religious claims being made, my atheism would be about an important a conversational topic as my preference for milk vs. dark chocolate. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. Go watch Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by the brilliant writer Greta Christina.

Generally the things I am only become an issue when other people make them an issue. My vegetarianism only really is an issue when I’m in a supermarket, raging at the ubiquity and awfulness of Quorn faux-meat burgers,2 or sighing slightly reluctantly when the only non-meat option on a menu in a restaurant is essentially cheese on toast (sorry, melted mozarella and sunblushed cherry tomatoes bruschetta on artisan foccacia bread).3

And it’s only when people are telling me I’m a moral reprobate undermining the fundamental stability of human society and are thus undeserving of equal rights that my sexual orientation is an issue. I usually don’t talk about it because you probably aren’t interested in the gender of the people I find romantically and sexually attractive. Except due to society as a whole not having reached the very minimal standards of decency I expect of it, it remains an issue.

So I’m gay.

I know. Scandalous and shocking, right?

I’m not “proud”, except in the sense that pride is the opposite of shame. It is a brute fact, in much the same way that my birthplace is a brute fact. In a sane and rational society, I’d happily go off and fancy, fantasise over, fuck, marry, whatever, with whoever I damn well please, and it wouldn’t be an issue for anyone but me and them.

But, as I’m repeatedly reminded, every time I open a newspaper or go on Twitter or walk down the street, this society isn’t a sane and rational society. So I better spell out what the actual issues are.

The only reason my sexual orientation is an issue is because other people have made it an issue.

If I fall in love with someone, we can’t get married. I can have a “civil partnership”. Which is like a marriage, except it isn’t a marriage. I can’t get married because society considers the institution of marriage not fit for people like me, only for other people.

A historical oversight, maybe, but for the fact that there is a big shouty campaign from churches and Lord Carey and that lot to keep it that way.

Why? People like me shouldn’t be allowed to get married because we might wreck it. How exactly? If I fall in love with someone and I want to make a commitment to that person for the rest of my life, how exactly would that destroy it?

Marriage is good enough for my parents and grandparents but not for me? Sorry, but that makes me fucking angry.4

And it isn’t enough just to argue with people like George Carey. I have to point out something fundamental here.

The choice is between equality of all before the law or marriage segregation, marriage apartheid and straight supremacism.

That is what it boils down to. Either marriage as an institution accomodates gay people and gay love, or the state continues to endorse a de facto policy of straight supremacism.

When people are saying that the social and institutional form that love takes in this society ought to remain unavailable to me because of who I am, I cannot remain silent.

I’m gay, and most of the time I’m fucking angry about it.

I’m angry because, well, where do we start?

Okay, let’s start with this. Imagine, someone I know, meets someone abroad and falls in love with them. They date, they love each other, they get into a long-term relationship. And so they marry. They move back to the city where the husband comes from and buy a big flat and they live happily ever after… no, wait, let me stop you there. They don’t marry, because the society they live in, like the UK up until we got marriage-lite, doesn’t recognise gay relationships and gay love. And because they don’t recognise gay love, they can’t get married, and the partner cannot cross the border, and so rather than living together, they have to see each other on tourist visas and do all sorts of bullshit with their family and basically hack the legal system in whatever way they can to get permission to live with the person they love. And then when their partner gets sick, they have all the pain of not necessarily being considered family for making legal and medical decisions or getting access to the person in hospital. And then just as a giant fuck you, when they die, the government bureaucrat writes on the death certificate that the relationship is that of “friend”. As if the person that you love more than anybody is in the same category as the mate from work who you go bowling with.

I’m angry that this utterly uncontroversial fact which I class as being in the same category as the county of my birth, if uttered or acted upon in states like Iran, can lead to execution. I’m angry that Ahmadinejad thinks there are no gays in Iran.

I’m angry that schools aren’t doing enough to put a stop to bullying against gay kids.

I’m angry about Rick Santorum.

I’m angry that gay people have to think twice before holding hands or kissing or displaying affection in public.

I’m angry that lesbians get “correctively raped”.

I’m angry that gay people were subject to electroshock therapy or chemical castration… in our lifetimes.

I’m angry that people think intolerance and homophobia are “family values” that need to be protected rather than eradicated. Hating other people was never a value my parents taught me.

I’m angry that at Wikipedia we have to have an article called Suicide among LGBT youth and that that’s a thing. I mean, if we got to the stage where there was an article on Wikipedia called “Suicide among redheads”, people would be as angry as I am, but when it’s just a bunch of queers, it’s no big deal.

I’m angry about Section 28. I’m angry that it took until 2003 to get rid of a law5 which is based on the fundamental premise that gay people are actually paedophiles and “predators”. I’m angry that such pernicious, hateful idiocy could be passed into law in 1988, that a new homophobic law could be passed a few years after I was born and not repealed until I started at university. I’m angry that in the year 2000, members of the Conservative Party still supported Section 28.

I’m angry that if other people get angry about some of the same things, they get told they have a “victim complex” or told to stop “whining”. Or that they need to be more tolerant of the intolerant.

I’m angry about the hundreds of gay people who have been murdered for being gay.

I’m angry that the best society is able to offer young people who are gay (or otherwise different) and getting bullied in school is the message that “it gets better”. Yes, it’s important to tell people it gets better. And it does get better. But it shouldn’t be bad to start with. Teenagers being bullied, whether for being gay or geeky or just not within the prescribed bounds of social statistical normality, should feel free to jump up with a megaphone and shout “No, this shit is not acceptable. Stop it now.” and not be made to feel like they are the problem.

I’m angry that in the United States and even in certain loonier bits of Britain, a lifetime of love between parent and child evaporates in seconds when the child comes out or is discovered to be gay. I’m really fucking angry when that kid ends up homeless on the street. I’m angry that Christian fundamentalist religion drives people to hate their own children because of the gender of who their children love.

I’m angry that in 2000, Frank Packenham, the Earl of Longford, could stand up in our upper legislative chamber and say something like this:

Why is it that so few of us would want our children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be homosexual? One obvious answer is that they cannot have families, and most people look upon families as a vital part of human life. That is the very sad fact about being homosexual. We therefore do not want to encourage it. Does anyone want to encourage homosexuality?

I’m angry that such a man is seen as fit to be consulted on the issues of the day, as if being gay is something that the legislature can either encourage or discourage, rather than simply accept as reality. I’m angry that someone might think that if our laws were just a bit more homophobic, people would suddenly see the light and switch. It barely needs to be pointed out, but for straight readers, imagine the scenario: the government decide to pass a law that makes it illegal to have sex with someone of the opposite sex until two years after an equivalent gay relationship. Would you then be more likely to contemplate having a gay relationship? If you feel even slightly insulted that someone would be stupid enough to think that the law would somehow change who you want to have a sexual or romantic relationship with, congratulations, you get it.

I’m angry that someone in 2000 could assume that not being able to naturally have children means that one cannot have a “family”. It rules out the many gay and lesbian parents, single or otherwise, who have children, from adoption, from sperm donation, and so on. But it also rules out many families gay and straight who are either unable to have children or who have chosen not to have children, and still have a family. Whether I’m gay or straight, single or in a relationship, with kids or without, I have a family: I have parents, a brother, uncles and aunts, nephews and so on. That people can deny the real family relationships of real living gay people in order to paint them as sub-human makes me really fucking angry. That they can with one breath deny gay people the chance to form a family in the strict sense through marriage and adoption, and then use gay people’s inability to form a family as a stick to beat them with and to justify the denial of rights makes me apoplectic with bloody rage.

I’m angry that someone like Packenham could derive the wrongness of homosexuality from a male-on-male sexual assault, but not also see the equivalent logic: that a male-on-female sexual assault ought to lead to concluding the wrongness of heterosexuality. The logic of Packenham’s homophobia is the same idiocy that underlines sexism (obligatory XKCD link).

I’m angry that the sort of homophobic idiocy expressed by the late Lord and many others has led to bloody terrible sex education that has been so prevalent for so long. Everyone, male and female, straight and gay deserves decent, comprehensive sex and relationship education that’s compassionate, honest and evidence-based, rather than pandering to the prejudices of homophobes, fundamentalists and the tabloid press. Many STIs, unwanted pregnancies and bad relationship issues are the fault of bad sex education.

I’m angry about Anne Widdecombe.

I’m angry that there are people who believe they can “cure” gay people, as if we need curing, as if we are all “struggling” with anything other than the bigoted idiocy of people like them.

I’m angry that if I wasn’t gay, or I didn’t want to discuss publicly whether I’m gay, getting angry about homophobia and persecution of gay people is likely to cause people to “suspect” I’m gay, as if that’s some terrible crime I need to own up to.

I’m angry that there’s a default assumption that I’m straight, and I’m angry that I have to run the risk-rewards calculation in my head of whether to set them right, and whether I can be bothered to go through all the bullshit that’ll go with it. It’s not that I’m worried about negative reactions. It’s not about negative reactions or positive reactions, I just don’t want it to be an issue. I’m angry that I never hear the phrase “No, actually, I’m straight” because of the default assumption to the contrary.

I’m angry that if someone speaks of a wedding, they have to qualify it as being a “same-sex” or a “gay” wedding if it is two men or two women, but don’t have to qualify it as a “straight” wedding if it isn’t. Every marriage should be a gay marriage in the original sense of the word gay.

I’m angry about Alan Turing.

I’m angry that fundamentalists teach their children that being gay means you deserve nothing but hellfire and damnation.

I’m angry that people have been booted out of their jobs in the U.S. military for being gay and for being open about it. I’m angry that the hard-working and patriotic contributions of gay and lesbian people gets undermined for juvenile idiocy (“but, but, gays might look at my dick when I’m in the shower!”) dressed up in the jargon of ‘unit cohesion’.

I’m angry that who I’m sexually and romantically attracted to gives people the right to opt-out, to “follow their conscience”, because having to provide a service that the taxpayer pays people to provide on their behalf makes them ‘uncomfortable’.

I’m angry that homophobic bigots now think that anyone who tells them they shouldn’t be bigots (or legally prevents them from exercising their bigotry) is discriminating against them.

I’m angry that if you work in a registry office and you refuse to officiate over an interracial straight marriage, you’d be sacked on the spot, but if you refuse to officiate over a gay or lesbian civil union, that’s just “religious conscience” and needs to be respected. No, fuck that. You not liking my sexual orientation is not a reason for you to not do the goddamn job you are paid by the taxpayer to do.

I’m angry that if a TV show depicts characters as being gay and kissing or having sex or having a relationship or, really, just existing, people write to Ofcom. I’m angry that people think gay love or gay relationships are such a ghastly concept that they shouldn’t show them on TV. I’m angry that people who are otherwise able to drive cars and vote and have children think that two men kissing is “sexually explicit” but a man and a woman kissing on TV is just fine. I remember this brouhaha a few years back.

I’m angry about Nadine Dorries.

I’m angry that hundreds of people can express their desire to kill their own children if they happen to be gay. Hundreds of people, in a public forum, some of them with their real name. Have they no shame?

I’m angry that in the US, parents can legally have their gay kids kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken off to “reform schools” for “problem kids” (because being gay means you are a problem and not a person) where they try and make the kids straight through ‘tough love’. I’m not shitting you.

I’m angry that the primary reason given for opposing gay marriage is that parents would have to explain to children that gay people exist. They literally don’t want to have to tell their kids that love and happiness is possible between gay people. Five seconds of having to say “well, mummy and daddy love each other very much and so chose to live together as a family. Sometimes two men or two women love each other very much and choose to live together as a family too.” That you are too much of a goddamn fucking loser to say that to a kid, because you think the mere existence of gay people might infect your kid and make him or her gay, or you are embarrassed to explain the concept to them… that’s the reason? Really? I can’t get married because you suck as a parent?

I’m angry that Quakers and liberal Jews and Unitarians and gay-affirming religious groups aren’t able to marry gay people if they want to. I’m angry that people consider religious freedom incompatible with gay marriage.

I’m angry that people hear the message of radical love and acceptance that Jesus of Nazareth teaches in the Gospels and use that as a weapon of hate.

I’m angry that people have had to live in sham marriages and marriages of convenience. I’m angry for them and for their partners, but I’m angry at society for making such things seem like the only option.

I’m angry that people see issues of sexual orientation as issues of willies and vaginas and boobies and assholes. That’s not it at all. What underlies all issues of sexual orientation is whether or not we can have a truly liberal society where people can live in a way that lets them flourish as free and equal citizens.

I’m angry that people think that if being gay were a choice, that would mean it would be okay to persecute gay people. Even if it were a choice, in a liberal society, people should have the freedom to choose. What, you think I’ve got the right to choose PC or Mac, Android or iPhone, train or car, Tesco or Waitrose… but if sexuality were a choice, you’d have the right to decide for me?

I’m angry that it’s 2012 and we’re still having to argue against homophobic dumbfuckery when there’s still so many more fights that still need to be fought.

I’m angry that if I do decide to tell people that I’m gay, they act all surprised, as if it’s impossible for someone to be gay and not find Madonna fabulous or desperately want to go out shopping or whatever the stereotype of the week is. I’m angry that I have to point out that being gay hasn’t changed the fact that I’d rather be discussing Bertrand Russell than Judy Garland. And I fucking hate clothes shopping and musicals.

I’m angry that I’ve written the best part of 3,000 words in this post and I still haven’t scratched the surface of why I’m angry.

I’m angry that “coming out” implies some kind of Oprah-style self-discovery moment where I’m affirming my identity, or some kind of Freudian emotional cleansing bullshit. That’s not what it’s about at all. My identity doesn’t need affirming and I don’t need to cleanse my emotions. I’m angry that this is even necessary. I’m angry that I have to take on the mantle of being considered courageous for simply asserting who I am. Was it ‘courageous’ when you “came out” as straight? You did come out as straight, right? Yeah, and you do have to decide whether to have ‘The Conversation’ with everyone about it, right? And if you decide (perfectly rationally) that you can’t be fucked with all that, you somehow aren’t courageous or are in self-denial?

No, the reason is simple.

I’m not coming out because I’m courageous. I’m coming out because I’m angry.

I’m angry and I want you to be bloody seething-with-rage angry too.

Every time someone on Xbox Live calls another player a “fag”, I want you to get angry and not just shrug it off as juvenile behaviour.

Next time, if you are a third party to a conversation where someone attempts to correct somebody else’s heteronormative assumptions, back them up.

I’m angry that if I ever take issue with someone’s homophobic language, I’m told to stop being so sensitive and that those queers just say it about themselves anyway, and how dare they not be allowed to use a word they freely use for themselves, and that all them faggots are just pink jackbooted thugs who want to police our language. I’m angry that I have to decide whether or not to tell them how far the words ‘them’ and ‘they’ extends or just quietly slink off.

I’m angry that it has to be my job to explain the whole decency thing to people.

I’m angry that idiots think that I’m angry about me or that I’m feeling sorry for myself. Apparently, they conclude from their self-centeredness that everyone else is as self-centered. No, I’m angry that it isn’t just about me, but that it’s about everybody. Lack of equality is about everybody: how can it not be?

Every time someone like Rick Santorum pipes up and compares gay people to people who want to have sex with animals, I want you to feel righteous fury and anger too. I want you to imagine how it feels to have someone compare the right to marry the person you love with someone who wants to have sex with a dog. Imagine that’s your relationship that Santorum is talking about and you’ll see why people, myself included, are quite angry, quite a lot of the time.

Because I lied at the start of this piece: when people tell me I’m not a human being, it actually does matter to me quite a bit.

  1. I remember my mother once being questioned about why her passport said that she was born in Nottingham by a confused Russian border guard. “Yes, it says I was born in Nottingham because I was born in Nottingham.” sounds like it ought to be a line from a lecture on truth-conditional semantics.

  2. I fucking loathe faux meat. If I wanted to eat meat, I’d eat the real thing, not some pretend meat that tastes like a goddamn breast implant that’s been marinated in recycled diesel fuel and covered in breadcrumbs.

  3. The difference between a toastie and a sunblushed lah-de-dah is about £3.50 and 2.37 units of human dignity.

  4. Actually, marriage wasn’t really allowable for my maternal grandparents either. Because my grandfather had been married and divorced, he wasn’t allowed to marry in the Church of England. They ended up finding a minister of the Church of Scotland (in London) who married them in the crypt.

  5. Yeah, in Scotland it was 2003.


The dangers of people search

Twitter’s people search is fun.


On what James Wood doesn't know

Truths and falsehoods alike can be both interesting and uninteresting. It is true that I have milk in my fridge, but so what? That spiders kill their male partners during reproduction is much, much more interesting than how much skimmed milk there is in my kitchen, even though both such matters can be turned into simple, literal assertions of fact. The same is true of falsehoods: if some dastardly thief has stolen the milk from the fridge in my house, my previous assertion of there being milk in my fridge is now sadly false. Again, unless it really was a dastardly thief, the lack of milk in my fridge is still rather dull. The same cannot be said for something like homeopathy which is profoundly wrong about the world, but as crazy pseudoscientific medical systems go, quite amusing and interesting.

True doesn’t equal interesting, false doesn’t equal boring. The two are quite separate properties. I point out this profoundly elementary distinction because it is almost guaranteed that when you hear someone write about “New Atheism”, they will conflate these two very different properties. And often enough they’ll throw in niceness: it’s not enough for something to be true, it also has to be interesting and said by a nice person, otherwise the truth of said assertion becomes highly suspect. Again, being nice has nothing to do with being right: to quote The Dude from The Big Lebowski, “You’re not wrong Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

It is with that philosophical preamble that we should approach James Wood’s piece in the Guardian. It’s filled with so much egregious erring, I don’t know where to start.

First up, there’s the old Subtleties and Oriental argument:

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights.

No, what atheists oppose is theism. It’s there in the name. If you oppose theism, you will end up in by dint of simple deductive reasoning opposing people who hold to theism. If your God is either nonexistent or very hand-wavy, you’ll end up not being the target of atheistic critique in the same way that if you don’t oppose the right to have an abortion, the people who want the right to have an abortion don’t tend to have much of a problem with you.

Yeah, the first problem with atheists apparently is that they are atheists.

Along with this curious parochialism about the varieties of religious belief comes a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the son of God”, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die”, and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice (“Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray”).

I’m sure that the same is true of political movements: the reason people become, say, white supremacists, isn’t necessarily because they have a stack of beliefs about the supremacy of white people but because it fills some kind of political niche, gives them a sense of positive self-identity in hating others, whatever.1

But it doesn’t matter. If a belief is wrong, the cause of that belief, or accompanying or directly related psychological states may be interesting but can’t be wheeled out as some kind of response to refutations of those beliefs. I don’t particularly care whether or not prayer is an important unconscious daily practice that forms an important part of your identity, just as I’m not interested in psychoanalysing the white supremacist or the person who posts urban legends on Facebook. The fact that there is non-propositional content to a belief doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to the propositional content of the belief, and if it’s false, perhaps do something radical like… not believe it.

Fortunately, Wood seems to realise this:

This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one’s mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider’s rational critique. Wittgenstein was obviously right, though this appeal to practice over proposition can also become a rather lazy way, for people like the Catholic Eagleton, of defending orthodox beliefs via the back door

Damn straight.

Now watch as Wood does exactly that.

Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.

Why is it the job of philosophers and scientists to give reasons why people believe falsehoods? There are crazy people on the Internet who spend every waking moment trying to teach the world that the Bush administration flew a missile into the Pentagon in order to give them a reason to, uh, invade Iraq and topple a fairly low-rent dictator, and if only the population wakes up and watches Loose Change, they’ll storm the palaces of power and demand an end to the war in Iraq. Now, if you are a structural engineer and you, say, write an article debunking said belief by pointing out fallacious arguments put forward to support that belief, you don’t have to play amateur shrink for Mr Avery and his pals for that critique to be understood as valid. Either it was a plane or it was a missile, either way the psychology of the believer is irrelevant to the factual question at hand.

Sure, the 9/11 Truthers won’t stop being nutcases, and religious people aren’t going to just stop believing in God, but that’s not the responsibility of the person providing a reasoned critique.

If philosophers (and, well, if you are writing about why God doesn’t exist, you are taking on the role of philosopher even if that isn’t what it says on your business card) fail to satisfy your need for psychological explanation, why is that the fault of the philosopher? If you want psychological explanation for religious belief, try a psychologist. There’s this whole field called psychology of religion which inquires into such subjects. Criticising atheists because they aren’t psychologists of religion is an oft-repeated but utterly pointless exercise.

Another analogy: it’s a common trope of discussions on the Internet and elsewhere that one “cannot prove a negative”. It’s bullshit, of course. We prove negatives all the time. If I prove or, let’s slice away that frequently misunderstood word “prove”, show beyond reasonable doubt that there is a cat sitting on my armchair, I have also proven the accompanying negative, namely that the statement “there is not a cat on my armchair” is false. If you can prove a positive, you can prove a negative. If you think that it is a law of logic that you can’t prove a negative, you don’t understand logic. I can show you very easily that if you can prove a positive, you can also prove a negative. It’s true and trivially so. You may reject my demonstration and continue to believe this falsehood, but it’s not my responsibility to show you why you believe that falsehood. And I can’t. I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a mindreader, I’m not you, and, frankly, I don’t give a shit. If you want to carry on believing that you can’t prove a negative, all I can do is to sit back and hope you one day have a sudden burst of inspiration and decide to go read a logic textbook and that I never have to be a defendant with you in the jury.

Where does Wood go now?

But people’s beliefs are often fluctuating and changing – it is why people lose their faith, or convert to faith in God.

Okay. Yes. People’s beliefs change. Big news. Sometimes they even change their beliefs based on reasoned argument. Hence why it’s kind of a good idea to have reasoned argument even if it turns out to be useless for many.

Wood then goes on to tell of a conversation with some believers. One turns out to not be a believer in heaven and hell:

When I, who was raised in a strongly and conventionally religious home, expressed surprise and suggested that once one stops believing in heaven one might as well stop believing in God, he said, more vehemently: “It’s exactly the opposite: not believing in heaven and hell is a prerequisite for serious Christian belief.” Trapped in the childhood literalism of my background, I had not entertained the possibility of Christian belief separated from the great lure and threat of heaven and hell.

Again, logic fail here. God can exist without heaven and hell. That’s fairly obvious. I’m not sure if heaven and hell could exist without God: that’s a bit harder to unpack. But given that I believe in neither of them, it’s not something I worry about too much. Anyway, if heaven and hell depends on the existence of God, then not believing in heaven and hell doesn’t mean that you cannot or should not believe in God. If you’ve got good reason to believe in God and then you find reasons to not believe in heaven and hell, to conclude form that there is no God is a case of denying the antecedent.

The New Atheism is locked into a similar kind of literalism. It parasitically lives off its enemy.

What he’s comparing New Atheism with isn’t literalism, that’s just shitty logic. There is a difference.

“Parasitically lives off its enemy”? Yeah, so does feminism. If there weren’t any misogyny and discrimination against women and there was complete equality, there would be no need for feminism. Responses to arguments are dependent on those arguments existing. Terming that “parasitism” might be a bit strong. But, again, how is this a big deal? Pointing out the wrongness in religious arguments when there aren’t religious arguments is impossible. But… religious arguments do exist.

Just as evangelical Christianity is characterised by scriptural literalism and an uncomplicated belief in a “personal God”, so the New Atheism often seems engaged only in doing battle with scriptural literalism; but the only way to combat such literalism is with rival literalism.

Err, no, it isn’t. Who says that “combatting” scriptural literalism is the goal of atheism, new or musty? If you spend your time speaking in tongues and rolling around the floor in the name of Jesus, fine. I can’t speak for all atheists, but just for myself, I think that religious beliefs are epistemically unjustified. Is this literalism? What am I being “literal” to? What text exactly? The collected works of Richard Dawkins? No, personally, I prefer something with a bit more philosophical meat like Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. But I’m not going to quote chapter and verse of that because… that’s a bloody stupid thing to do. This “rival literalism” thing is bollocks.

Since militant atheism interprets religious faith, again on the evangelical or Islamist model, as blind – a blind leap of faith that hurls the believer into an infinite idiocy – so no understanding or even interest can be extended to why or how people believe the religious narratives they follow, and how often those narratives are invaded by doubt, reversal, interruption and banality.

How does “militant atheism” interpret religious faith? There’s no interpretation about it. I see fellow citizens, some have crazy beliefs, others don’t. I challenge the people with the crazy beliefs and leave the people with the more moderate beliefs alone. No interpretation at all. I fully accept that there are mild religious people, as do Dawkins and the rest of them. If you are opposed to religion, you’ve got to pick your targets, just as you do if you are, say, a feminist. Back in the early days of feminism, getting the right to vote and the right to work is more important than correcting people who say “love”. If you are fighting for gay rights, being able to get married is nice, but it plays second fiddle to not being murdered. To say that atheists in general think that all religion is exemplified by fundamentalist Christians is crazy. I know tons of atheists and none of them think that: with one or two exceptions, we’re pretty much happy to accept that religion is a wide label.

But there’s still a problem here. Yes, I’d rather have more Jainists and Quakers in the world than fundamentalist wackaloons shooting doctors who perform abortions and forcing schools to teach creationism or whatever the stupid shit of the week the crazy lobby are up to. But however nice I think plenty of liberal religious people are,2 I still think they are wrong on this whole God thing.

Wood goes on to criticise Dawkins…

There is a telling moment in The God Delusion when Dawkins speculates on why countless generations of people believed in God. How could belief in an illusion have persisted for so long? Dawkins suggests that we have evolved an HADD, a “hyperactive agent detection device”: “we hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent.” His example of this elementary mistake comes from the episode of Fawlty Towers in which John Cleese’s car breaks down. Cleese gets out and starts hitting the car. This is an example of HADD, and by extension, of mankind’s belief in God. Now, do you really think that offering a minute from Fawlty Towers is an adequate analogy for millennia of religious belief? This is not about whether one believes in God or not. One can be an unbeliever and find this a bit feeble.

Wood here is confusing analogy with explanation. The explanation is that humans have evolved to detect agency, and the Fawlty Towers example is just that: an example. Dawkins isn’t saying that religious belief is as trivial as a sitcom, he’s saying you can see this as an example of agency detection in miniature, and things like conspiracy theories and religion are agency detection writ large. It’s a pretty well-selected example.

Confusing analogy with argument and then getting all huffy about the analogy is something I’ve seen countless times before, and I’m bored to tears with it. Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote a paper back in 1971 called A Defense of Abortion. Imagine, if you will, a literary critic reading said paper. He’s a bit crap at the whole logic thing, but gets caught up with the analogies, then skips the argumentation between the analogies. He comes away rather frustrated and writes a piece that berates Thomson for “comparing abortion to…” and then lists the various hypothetical scenarios and analogies she used. Now put yourself back in the position of Thomson (or any philosopher, really) and imagine the response on reading said argument.

“Of course,” Thomson would say regretfully, “I wasn’t saying that abortion is exactly like being kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers who use your kidneys to keep a famous violinist alive. And of course I don’t think abortion is exactly like being trapped with a rapidly-growing baby in a house with no windows. And of course getting pregnant is not like having a ‘babyseed’ come and land in your carpet. What kind of looney reads these analogies and fails to understand that they are analogies?”

So it would be for Thomson and so it is for the atheist reading the pontifications of literary types on the writings of the New Atheists.3

Marx said that the study of religion was the most serious project an intellectual could have. If I told you that the history of warfare, say, could be “explained” by some recent discovery of a particular receptor in the brain, that Agincourt and Austerlitz, Antietam and the Ardennes were all essentially the same thing, because produced by a universal delusion, what would I have told you about the nature of warfare, of politics, of statecraft, of the enormous mass mobilisations that Tolstoy characterised as “the swarm-like life of mankind”?

Sigh. Another straw man. How many times do I have to repeat this? It’s not the job of atheists New or Old to explain religion any more than it’s the job of vegetarians and vegans to explain meat-eating. Again, psychologists and sociologists exist. Go ask them. I’m not interested in why religion exists. I’m not uninterested exactly: if we come up with a good explanation that fits all the evidence, it’d be interesting to find out. But it’s not my primary concern.

One good place to study that “swarm-like life”, and to see religious belief seriously represented and seriously examined, is the modern novel – from, say, Melville and Flaubert in the 1850s to the present day. Melville, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Beckett, Camus – and in our own time José Saramago, Marilynne Robinson and JM Coetzee – have all shown sustained interest in questions of belief and unbelief; many of them have struggled with the departure of God.

That presumes that religious belief needs to be “seriously examined”. If the fundamental basis of it is false, why bother with serious examination? Do we need “serious examination” of the Loch Ness Monster? But, you know, I’m not a philistine, I’m not opposed to serious examination of falsehoods. And I’m open to the idea that falsehoods can lead to us learning interesting and useful things about humanity and the world. But, again, there’s the conflation of true with interesting going on here. Religious belief may be interesting, and, sure, Camus and Flaubert and so on: they are interesting. But how does that change the thing that the philosophers care about: is it true?

Is it true? is the question we care about. Things can be true and interesting, true and uninteresting, false and interesting or like Wood’s column, false and uninteresting.

One last thing.

Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection.

Dawkins is dead to metaphor? This is the guy who gave the world giant robots controlled by selfish genes, ideas spreading as memes, evolution softening away at “mount improbable”, and so on. Dawkins is one of the few scientific writers who turns a bloody good metaphor.

Sigh again.

  1. Cue boring, tired and fallacious moaning about how I’m comparing religious people to white supremacists. Yes, I’m comparing religious people to white supremacists. I’m not saying that religious people are white supremacists. I’ll compare strawberries to Bill Clinton if you like. Or perhaps I’ll compare the termination of life support for people with persistent vegetative states to flipping a switch in a trolley-cart thought experiment. If you’ve got a problem with people making comparisons, please, go read up on the value of thought experiments. Without being able to make comparisons and distinctions, all intellectual inquiry goes up in a puff of stupid rhetorical pussyfooting.

  2. I’m not joking here. I’m glad that there are religious people who are warm, friendly, congenial, tolerant, gay-affirming and who stand for justice, freedom and human rights. And ceteris paribus, I’d rather there were more Greenbelt and less Bible Belt.

  3. Again, I’m not totally sure what makes the New Atheists different from the old, lower-case atheists or upon what criteria one categorises someone as a New rather than an old. But then I’m not a Wizened Literary Critic, just a guy with a philosophy degree.


Despite my recent visit to Israel, I find myself militantly neutral on everything related to Israel and Palestine. Both countries have crazy religious looneys fucking things up for the sane people; peace in the Middle East would be a darn sight easier if there were less crazy people with fervent beliefs that God is on their side. It is in that context that Glenn Beck speaking in Jerusalem makes me even more conflicted: because fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians haven’t screwed up the Middle East enough, let’s add wackadoodle Mormons to the mix? Sigh.


Quoted for hilarious: Ron Knight of Knight Mediacom International threatens Wikipedian

I used to find Wikipedia’s legendary Administrator’s Noticeboard/Incidents rather scary and depressing. I now tend to find it hilarious. And today is no exception.

A guy called Ron Knight (check his LinkedIn profile) has threatened a Wikipedia administrator for deleting the self-promotional article about his company, “Knight Mediacom”–not to be confused with the other MediaCom.

The full text of his e-mailed legal threat is up on the ANI thread.

Mr. Schumin;

You have under your actions, pretenses and non-authority, with lack of education and understanding on the history of our firm, deleted the Wikipedia page for Knight Mediacom International, which you state has no other Wikipedia references, nor credible references to exist. If you have done your homework, you will have found countless references to Knight Mediacom International by both ISBN and UPC code, as the only authorized video distribution company to have distributed the works of CCTV and seven leading motion picture studios in China, as well as the USA, Belgium and Brazil, all within the United States, all of which titles may be found on Amazon and countless other film and motion pictures based resource and reference sites.

Further, other Wikipedia links were in fact linked to Facets Multimedia, FAO Schwarz, Archie Comics, Universal Studios and other major media firms in the United States. While reviewing your credentials, which appear collegiate at best and Wiki web based only, I would suggest that the next party can just as easily, with no further credentials, decide to delete you and your respective history and page on Wikipedia, solely for you as just a Web blog, it makes you of no importance nor credential should someone in turn just choose to delete you. You may well be a college student, but you have no professional track record nor any link to be “cleaning up” as a “credible clean up source” for a public Wiki space, and certainly you possess no credible certificate of noteworthiness of linked commercial industry nor brands.

Last, as you have deleted a trail from our time and investment in positioning actions on the web as a basis for stating a protection of trademarked intellectual properties and copyrights, which could be cause for a justified pursuit in the Courts against you, as a principal action to be construed as a case of action in law, this action should we choose can cause you great time, trouble and costs for your rather non well researched decision on such action.

Clearly your action to delete a company file is troublesome, and may well be so for you.

This note is made to be civil. You should return to Wikipedia and Undelete the Page for Knight Mediacom International, with explanation that you had failed to do complete research on all historic links, ties and other references, less aside from a court case filing, you may not wish to find someone simply coming along to delete You and your web based positions.

You have deleted our Intellectual Property as positions using Wiki references as the tool in our pursuits of trademark and copyrights filings and published position protections, and we maintain full rights on these claims of loss and damages. We trust you will take soonest action to return to Wikipedia and Repost to remove the Delete of Knight Mediacom International, with all its linked references within 10 days of receipt of this email notification.

Do what’s right. Awaiting your soonest action and reply.

Respectfully,

Ron Knight President Knight Mediacom International
C.c. Charles Grimes, Counsel at Law, Grimes & Battersby
C.c. Peter Eichler, Counsel at Law, Jennings & Strauss, Attorneys at Law
C.c. Paul Mirowski, Counsel at Mirowski Law, LLC

Apparently, according to this incompetent dickmuncher, it is the legal responsibility of Wikipedia administrators to not delete his content, and presumably it is also the legal responsibility of the Wikimedia Foundation to continue hosting “his” intellectual property, even though when he submitted it to Wikipedia, he presumably saw the bit on the edit page that said:

Content that violates any copyrights will be deleted. Encyclopedic content must be verifiable.

By clicking the “Save Page” button, you agree to the Terms of Use, and you irrevocably agree to release your contribution under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 License and the GFDL. You agree that a hyperlink or URL is sufficient attribution under the Creative Commons license.

And below that:

If you do not want your writing to be edited, used, and redistributed at will, then do not submit it here. All text that you did not write yourself, except brief excerpts, must be available under terms consistent with Wikipedia’s Terms of Use before you submit it.

“Deleting it because it is shit” is definitely included in “edited, used, and redistributed at will”.

Anyway, if you are thinking of hiring Ron Knight of Knight Mediacom International for the wide variety of media-related services he offers, you may wish to take the above into consideration, as he seems to be legally incompetent despite apparently retaining the services of three lawyers. He doesn’t seem to understand that no aspect of American copyright law entitles you to threaten Wikipedia administrators for deleting self-promotional content. Also, do feel free to savour the terrible grammar, sloppy sentence construction and general stupidity of the letter. Ask yourself: do you want this man working for your business?

If you feel you want to share Ron Knight’s legal theories with the world, feel free to link to this page with any link text you feel appropriate.

Or you could learn from Mr Knight’s failings: if/when your Wikipedia page gets deleted, sending a poorly-written, clueless legal threat to a Wikipedia administrator is a terrible way to promote your business or, indeed, getting your Wikipedia page restored. But it will amuse people, or at least the morally bankrupt ANI readers, for a few hours.


They can't stop twisting and lying about assisted dying

Terry Pratchett’s documentary ‘Choosing to Die’ has, according to the press, brought the debate about assisted dying back to the foreground. Which means in practice that the usual sources of idiotic blather are spouting off again.

Where do we start? Oh, religion of course. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, who has previously said that gay people should “repent and be changed”, told The Telegraph:

as a public service broadcaster, the BBC has an obligation to provide a balanced presentation of the moral issues of the day, especially when legality is also at stake

Implying of course that the BBC is “biased” in this. If anything, the BBC is far too biased towards the views of people like Mr Nazir-Ali. Whenever the BBC cover something that is supposedly a ‘moral’ issue, the usual parade of religious types turn up to harumph and moan. Back in 2006, I wrote a post entitled The BBC, abortion and religious ‘experts’ which shows how BBC News dramatically overemphasies coverage of the views of the Church on abortion compared to the views of academics. Given that we have a whole field of expertise devoted to studying the ethical nature of medical and biological sciences, they get consulted rather less often than men in frocks with theology degrees.

Indeed, the BBC sticks the subject of ethics together with religion as if they are like Steptoe and Son or Laurel and Hardy. If you tune into something like ‘The Big Questions’, you’ll get some actual big question like whether we should bomb Libya with something like whether or not Satan exists which, for the 90%+ of people who don’t go to Church or don’t take the whole thing more literally than they do Chinese fortune cookies is completely fucking irrelevant.

How would a “balanced presentation” play out? How about for every hour of sport on television, we could have an hour of a programme for people who like nothing more than whinging about how sport is a pointless and crap enterprise? Every hour of Songs of Praise and All Things Considered or Thought for the Day, we could have an hour of angry atheist ranting? If you are up for the “balanced presentation” thing, let’s start with religion.

And while we are at it, we have another clergyman, this time on the follow-up programme with Jeremy Paxman. Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter:

I want to see much more emphasis placed on supporting people when living than assisting them in dying.

Okay. How is that a useful contribution to anything? If I go for a meeting with my bank manager and he tells me that my account is hundreds of pounds overdrawn, and I said “I want to see much more emphasis placed on you giving me a free Mars bar than telling me off for being financially imprudent”, that’s all well and good… but he is under no obligation to stop caring about my financial problems until he has satisfied me with free Mars bars.

This is a common enough tactic in public debate, but it really pisses me off. “I want to see more emphasis placed on y than x.” Okay, fine, but we are debating x so kindly talk about x. What is especially annoying about it is that saying this instantly makes it seem like people who are pushing x aren’t interested or are actively opposed to y.

Most people who are in favour of providing assisted dying are happy with the general goal of “supporting people”. If you want to help disabled people, campaigning hard against a government hell-bent on cutting back severely on incapacity benefit and disability living allowance is the issue. This weaselly little rhetorical technique means you can make it seem like those who are arguing for access to assisted dying are somehow against, err, “supporting people”.

Finally, there is Liz Carr who has repeatedly brought up the fact that assisted dying is “a minority issue”.

Basically her argument is that only a small number of people would be affected by assisted dying, and therefore we shouldn’t pass a law to change anything.

Let’s apply that principle to some other issue. From June 2009 to June 2010, there were around 14,000 rapes in Britain. Now, there are 60 million people in Britain. That means only 0.02% of the population is raped. The Sexual Offences Act was last amended back in 2003. Would it have been a good argument to say that since only 0.02% of the population are affected by rape in a given year, we shouldn’t bother changing the law because it is “a minority issue”?

Of course not. If something is unjust we should change it, even if it only affects a small number of people.

I’m happy for there to be a renewed debate on assisted dying. But the debate is currently facile: it consists of a group of people explaining a current legal absurdity (namely that you can currently have an assisted suicide in Switzerland if you can afford it, but if we changed the law, you could have assisted dying with less bad consequences and available for people who can’t afford to go to Switzerland), and another group saying “BUT BAD THINGS MIGHT HAPPEN!! WE SHOULDN’T DO ANYTHING!!” even though in Oregon and Belgium and the Netherlands and so on said bad things have (thankfully) completely failed to materialize.

In the technology industry, we have a term for what the anti-assisted dying people are doing: spreading FUD.


Weekly Idiocy in Review #1: Collecting the Froth

I was going to keep posting idiocy today just to make a point. But there is so much idiocy, it all needs to be bundled together into one post. If people like this, it might turn into something like a weekly idiocy review.

First off, Mike Adams (aka. “The Health Ranger”), the vote-stuffing “natural health” dimwit has been off in la-la land exploring “quantum consciousness” and being a doltish idiot in the process. His usual self then. See Pharyngula.

Uganda almost passed the kill-gay-people bill again, the Guardian reports. This guy reckons it goes against Christian teaching, which is why it was not promoted by a horde of American evangelicals and the established Church of Uganda (the local Anglican franchise). Except, you know, it was.

Newt Gingrich:

I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it. I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion.

Tell that to Jared Lee Loughner or Scott Roeder (see Assassination of George Tiller) or, indeed, the Ugandan gay population.

Good news from the State of Maryland: Mark Geier, a quackaloon who thinks that the best way to treat autistic people is to give them chemical castration drugs, has had his medical licence suspended. See Neurodiversity, Science-Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence.

The Encyclopedia of American Loons keeps growing, and there are some great new entries this month. Rick Joyner is right at the nutty edge of evangelicalism. How crazy? Sarah Palin crazy. Watch this video. The original isn’t online anymore, but in this video there are a few little bits of Joyner’s craziness. My favourite is when he asks his congregation to “pull out your cell phones and call someone who needs a touch from God”. In the original video, they got someone up to to the front of the congregation who sounds like she is on crack, and she starts babbling about how Jesus sent “anointing” down the phone line and the person on the other end “got the fire of Jesus”.

Then there’s Alex Jones, who I only found out recently interviewed an elected representative of mine, Nigel Farage MEP. I knew Farage was slightly nutty (he’s in UKIP after all), but I didn’t think he consorted with Alex Jones. The full thing is on YouTube along with lots of comments about how Alex Jones and Farage are fighting the evil socialist lizard-man agenda.

Finally, there’s Phillip E. Johnson, the godfather of Intelligent Design. As an undergraduate, I wasted far, far too much time reading his atrociously-written books. Instead, you can read Stephen Jay Gould’s brilliant review of Johnson’s book and back from before Michael Ruse lost it, Ruse’s take on Johnson’s later book where Johnson completely froths at the mouth about the evils of “naturalism” while never really bothering to explain what it is he is arguing against. (As someone trained in philosophy, I oppose this. Johnson gives lawyers a bad name. I repeat, Johnson gives lawyers a bad name.)

Those dastardly skeptics are keeping up the pressure on homeopaths by complaining that their non-medicine is indeed not medicine. But the homeopaths have a cunning plan: they are going to make it seem like skeptics are racists who hate people from the Indian subcontinent. No, really. Screenshot

Chatting with my husband last night about the complaints by the Advertising Standards Authority here in the UK agains homeopaths, we think we have come up with a plan to put an end to this nonsense. We can play the race discrimination card if we get this right.

I was rather hoping they’d play the present scientific evidence that show your alternative medical system isn’t totally bogus card. But the race discrimination card certainly serves as an amusing substitute if the science card has been lost or otherwise misplaced.

Commentary and further slightly exasperated giggling available at Skepchick, Sceptical Letter Writer, Le Canard Noir, The Science Bit.

Video of the week: Santorum

Time for some Santorum:

When the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter says that Muslims are trying to “insinuate” Sharia law, he actually means “institute”.

Until next time, enjoy being accused of racism while you pick out an engagement ring for your “man-on-dog” marriage. If you’ve got any suggestions or feedback on whether to continue with ‘Weekly Idiocy in Review’, email, post a comment or tweet my Facebook or whatever bullshit social networking thing you prefer.


The Brigham-Young University Honor Code:

A clean and well-cared-for appearance should be maintained. Clothing is inappropriate when it is sleeveless, revealing, or form fitting. Shorts must be knee-length or longer. Hairstyles should be clean and neat, avoiding extreme styles or colors, and trimmed above the collar, leaving the ear uncovered.

I can think of at least one famous person who would not meet these requirements.

Memling Christ Surrounded by Musician Angels 02

Museum in Poznan - Martwy Chrystus

“Hey Jesus, the Mormons called and they want you to to shave that damn beard off, put some proper trousers on and report to the Honor Code Office at BYU or you won’t be able to graduate with that BA in Mormon Theology you always wanted.”


.tel, .xxx and .mobi are all pointless and idiotic

Warning: I’m pretty goddamn angry. This post reflects that.

.xxx

ICANN have approved .xxx. Sigh. If I were an American, I’d now be saying something like “ICANN have jumped the shark”. Instead, I’m British, so I’ll say “ICANN are fucking useless twats who need a firm kick in the bollocks”.

.xxx is so blatantly stupid and driven by money. It’s going to be $70 to register a .xxx, apparently. They’ve already got quarter of a million domains lined up for pre-registration. $10 of that $70 will go to some fund to help kids not look at porn or something equally worthwhile.

The whole thing will remain pointless. Without legislative action to mandate that porn sites all use .xxx, the point of the thing is dumb. But because DNS is global, whose law is going to apply? US law? Danish? Korean? Saudi Arabian? Turkish? Unless you enforce .xxx, it’s pointless. And if you enforce .xxx, it’s unworkable. Lose-lose. And think what enforcing it means: some 19-year-old goth chick on LiveJournal wants to put up some racy shots of her breasts from some vampiric ritual she just did with her boyfriend, and she has to put it up on livejournal.xxx rather than livejournal.com? There’s bloody thousands of adult blogs on Blogspot and so on. Good luck with that. It’s not just about getting porno studios to register some new domains: it means getting thousands of people to move their content around.

So, we can’t do that. That’s politically and practically impossible.

But, you might say, I mean, even if you don’t enforce .xxx, you can still use it to filter content, right? Maybe. Let me explain how that might work.

Well, you either filter it by domain name or by IP. First, by domain name: that is, you make it so that little Johnny can’t visit any website where the domain component of the URL ends in the string “.xxx”, in which case all little Johnny has to do is go to a web-based nslookup tool, type in the domain he wants to look at, and then replace the domain with that IP address. All you’ve done is blocked him from looking up the IP address associated with that domain. It won’t work for everything, but the sort of people you are trying to prevent accessing porn don’t care that they can’t find a particular site. Once the kiddiewinks have found porn, they’ll whack it on a USB stick and you, dear parent or guardian, will be none the wiser. The filter has to work 100% of the time or it has failed.

Okay, so we can’t do it that way. What about if we were to get a list of all the .xxx zone files, nslookup up them all periodically and then use that as the blacklist. Okay, let’s do that. That’s a more promising approach. Except, until some bastard like me comes along and registers a .xxx domain, and points A subdomain records for a whole bunch of popular sites like Disney or Google or Focus on the Family or Wikipedia. Now your periodical check of the .xxx domain space happens, you garner all the IP addresses and you block ‘em all. And so now you can’t access Google, Wikipedia, Focus on the Family and all the other sites I’ve added as A records. That kind of sucks, right? (Except Focus on the Family: the world would be a better place without those assholes.)

So, a .xxx domain name can’t guarantee that there is porn there and the lack of a .xxx domain name can’t guarantee that there isn’t porn there. And because the mapping of domain to IP is many-to-many, you are screwed if you use either as an exclusive way to filter content. And because you can’t use either IP or domain to filter content, you have to use the content itself to determine whether to filter the content. Really.

I’m not just a raving lunatic here, go read the IETF’s RFC 3675. Really, if you know anything about the Internet, it takes only a small amount of brain power to see why .xxx is stupid. The fact that ICANN either cannot see that or can put aside the completely obvious problems with such a scheme because someone brings a giant wheelbarrow of cash and dumps it in their lap should be reason enough for ICANN to be rapidly disassembled and replaced by a group of people who’ve actually got a clue about the Internet.

.mobi

.mobi is a dumb idea too. Tim Berners-Lee pointed this out in 2004 and the W3C Technical Architecture Group agreed. There really is no point in .mobi.

Experiment time. If you haven’t got a handheld device with Internet access like a smartphone, consider this a thought experiment. Without using Google, I want you to go to the website of Vodafone. What did you type in? vodafone.com? vodafone.co.uk? vodafone followed by the commercial extension for whatever country you are based in? Congratulations, you are sane. vodafone.mobi? I bet you if you typed that in, you are either Terence Eden or you work for DotMobi.

On a mobile phone without a QWERTY keyboard or on-screen touch keyboard, given the standard layout of letters on keys, it takes more button presses to type “.mobi” than it takes to type “.com”. The one place where you want to optimise for the least number of butto presses–on a goddamn phone!–and it takes more buttons to type in the mobile-specific URI fragment than it does to type in the generic one. (If you are on an iPhone, there is a button you can press which plonks .com in, and if you hold it down it brings up some other popular TLDs like .org, .net, and your country specific ones like .co.uk)

And why? What’s the point? The world is not split into a Desktop Web and a Mobile Web. If I’m sitting on my sofa using an iOS or Android device over wifi on my home DSL connection, am I ‘desktop’ or ‘mobile’? Neither. If I’m sitting on the train using a 17” laptop on a shaky 3G connection, am I ‘desktop’ or ‘mobile’? Both. I’m using a device in a particular context. Maybe you can customise my experience a bit by doing content negotiation and feature detection and graceful degradation and all those other cool web-dev buzzwords. But that’s at the level of the web browser, not at the level of the domain name.

If I’m on an iPhone or Blackberry, and you’ve got a .mobi domain, should I send e-mail to your .com or your .mobi? I mean, if the domain name system is there to distinguish between different devices, why restrict it to just HTTP? Why not have an FTP site so that I can upload files to a different domain when I’m using an FTP client on my mobile device. No, that’s a fundamentally silly idea. What about SSH? I have an SSH client on my phone and on my iOS devices. Should I SSH into the .mobi domain rather than the .com? Should we have mobile-specific IRC servers on .mobi rather than generic domains? Should mobile devices have to use a specific pool.ntp.mobi NTP server rather than the generic pool.ntp.org servers everyone else uses? What about Gopher and Usenet and BitTorrent and World of Warcraft and Skype and your-favourite-protocol-here?

And what about if I want to give a URI of a web page to someone? How do I know if they are on their mobile device and thus need the .mobi version or on their immobile device and can just be given the generic domain? What happens if I give them the wrong one? Surely, their browser and the server should be clever enough to talk to one another and figure out what is going on. Yeah. That’s my point.

Why are we importing WWW-specific assumptions to DNS, when DNS covers all services? What happens if someone invents WWW2 or whatever next week, some new protocol that makes the WWW look as old-fashioned as Gopher does now. Won’t we regret having the DNS system based on the silly assumptions of today?

.tel

And that brings us to the final part of this idiotic, DNS-themed ménage à trois: .tel. Wikipedia explains the point of .tel:

The domain's purpose is to provide a single name space for Internet communications services. Subdomain registrations serve as a single point of contact for individuals and businesses, providing a global contact directory service by hosting all types of contact information directly in the Domain Name System, without the need to build, host or manage a traditional web service. Additionally, as of July 2010, every .tel domain acts as an OpenID and an increasing number of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) clients can 'dial' a .tel domain name directly. The TLD implementation also supports the hCard micro-format.

Whenever you read the phrase “is to provide a single name space for” in the context of a TLD, an alarm bell should start going. Unless you bloody well threaten people with going to jail, you are never going to get everyone to use the TLD.

The basic idea of .tel is that you can get back some telephone-related metadata about the registrant.

Yeah, there’s a way of doing that now using humble HTTP without creating a DNS-based monopoly. You send out an HTTP GET request to the resource you are interested in with an Accept header that looks like this:

Accept: text/x-vcard, application/xml+rdf, text/n3, application/xml+xhtml, text/html

Feel free to tack anything else on the end as you see fit.

Then you parse the response like this:

  1. If it gives you back a vCard, you extract the telephone number from the vCard.
  2. If it gives you back RDF, you parse it into a graph and query it for common predicates representing phone numbers (you want a list? Google it yourself) and use the FOAF primary-subject-of pattern.
  3. If it gives you back HTML/XHTML, you run it through an XML parser or HTML parser, extract any microformats, follow the representative-hcard parsing rules, and if there is a representative hCard on the page with a telephone number, you extract that. If not, you extract all the telephone numbers in the hCards. If there are no hCards, you check to see if there are any links with the type “text/x-vcard” and load those and extract the telephone number. If there are none of them, you run a regex to get everything that looks like a phone number. If you need some idea of what phone numbers look like, you take a look at the language-region encoding in the lang/xml:lang tags of the page. Oh, and look for links where the href begins “tel:”. There’s probably some “skype:” links you can extract too.

I’ve been meaning to write this code and put it up as a web service. Now you don’t need .tel at all: you go and make all your fancy iPhone and Android apps so you can just type in a company’s web address and it brings up a list of their phone numbers and you push or tap or whatever on the one you want.

Again, the same problem is there as with .mobi. Imagine if you wanted to call Oxford University. You know their domain is ox.ac.uk. What’s their .telox.tel? oxforduniversity.tel? oxuni.tel? Adding another domain doesn’t solve the problem, it means you now have two domains to remember–two problems. The use case is “dial the domain”: you can remember the domain and you want to dial it. Adding another TLD doesn’t solve that, it means you have to remember another domain.

Conclusion

I think what I’ve shown fairly conclusively with this is that everyone sucks at DNS and that ICANN is broken. New TLD allocation is now being driven by marketing, fashion and whoever can dump a sufficiently large pile of cash on the desk of the relevant people at ICANN, rather than actually provide a compelling argument for that TLD. How do we fix that? Fuck knows. I’ve heard that some of the Wikileaks and Pirate Bay crowd are working on a distributed alternative to DNS. That might work. Politically, we should push for an actual democratic version of ICANN, and get a bunch of wise Unix neckbeard types to join and require all TLDs to get a supermajority vote of ICANN or a future counterpart to ICANN. Or we could form a loose coalition of people who are willing to just direct all DNS lookups for idiotic TLDs like .tel, .xxx and .mobi to /dev/null.

Thanks to Hacker News for putting this on the homepage.


What's a century or so between fellow conservatives?

I saw a fantastic Conservapedia thing on RationalWiki today that I have to share.

But first, some fun facts from the evil, liberal Wikipedia.

Thanksgiving: “In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition traces its origins to a 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts.”

United States Constitution: “The Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787”

Remember those dates: Thanskgiving 1621, Constitution 1787.

Now have a look at this image. It’s a screen capture of a piece of fan mail that used to be on the front page of Conservapedia. It reads:

I love Conservapedia, and was able to check a few things. I learned from you that the first thanksgiving was to give thanks for the Constitution.

Again. First Thanksgiving 1621. Constitution 1787.

Andrew Schlafly, the editor of Conservapedia, teaches U.S. and world history to a bunch of home school children in New Jersey.

Sigh. Dunning-Krueger effect, meet Andrew Schlafly.

For more of this kind of idiocy, read Best of Conservapedia.


Infographics are porn without the happy ending

Consider this image:

It’s taken from this article on Mashable about one year of the iPad.

This is what curl -I has to say about it:

The important line from that, for those who don’t really do the Unix command line, is “Content-Length”. This is how large the file is in bytes. 200,939 bytes.

Now, to show the complete superfluousness of infographics, I have expressed the same information in another format, namely plain text (Internet MIME type: text/plain) encoded in ASCII.

Here it is:

The iPad has been out a year.

Analysts thought it would sell 3.3 million units. It sold 14.8 million.

Oppenheimer & Co. predicts tablet shipments will grow from 15.1 million in 2011 to 115 million in 2014.

Apple has 90% of the market share.

Five simple sentences that almost anybody could understand. The wc utility on my computer tells me it is 245 bytes.

These 245 bytes of English text/plain transmits exactly the same amount of information as the 200,939 byte JPEG image and does so without making me want to kick someone in the dick.

If you wanted to catalogue the shit-eating complacency and pretentiousness of Web 2.0, infographics would be right up there with the damn TED conference and people who put “rockstar” on their business card.

Did someone really sit down one day and think “you know, unless we have the market share of the iPad illustrated as a pie chart shaped as an apple, people will think this statistic is too dry”? The story of the iPad is an interesting one: much, much more interesting than can be displayed in three factoids hastily put together in a crappy infographic. You don’t need an infographic to tell the story of a computer that is the size and form of a magazine. You need a writer.

Everyone keeps telling me that infographics are fine, and that I’m just getting stuck in Sturgeon’s Law. I keep hearing infographics designers turn up at design events talking about the awesomeness of infographics. But in my day to day life, I can’t remember ever seeing a good infographic. That is, I can’t remember ever seeing an infographic that made it worth the page taking even half a second longer to load.

Unlike words, infographics are unreadable on small screen devices. Infographics make information less accessible for blind people and others with visual impairments. Christ, I have near-perfect 20-20 vision and I struggle to read some of the goddamn too-hipster-by-half typefaces even the better infographic designers use. If you make an infographic, you are basically saying fuck you to blind people, fuck you to the Googlebot and often fuck you to people with colour-blindness. And you are definitely saying fuck you to people on slow connections. If you are paying £4 a megabyte to get data in Paris (yeah, I hate you too, Orange), putting an infographic where text could do the job isn’t just a giant fuck you but a waste of actual money. And by the time you notice, you can’t complain. If you are out in India and your only connection to the WWW is a phone we Westerners called shitty and threw away about three years ago, the infographic is completely inaccessible to you.

And if you are trying to help people understand information–a wholly laudable goal!–cutting off the poor, the blind and those on shitty connections is a bad way of doing it. The first step to understanding information is making it available. And text/plain or text/html is a much better way of doing it than wrapping it in a poncy graphic. At the very least, if you all still think infographics are still worth doing, bloody well work out how to make them accessible and provide text fallbacks. Or stop making infographics and work out how to produce mixed graphic/text layouts. Just because you’ve got worked out an awesome ripple effect for that pie chart doesn’t exempt you from accessible design principles like progressive enhancement.

Take this infographic. If you were actually trying to get information across, you could turn most of it into a web page, and then put the graph at the bottom as an SVG. There are plenty of ways you could make it look nice. An ‘infographic’ pretty much has to be an image–in this case, a JPEG (again, seriously? Did nobody teach infographics designers that line art and text is best as a PNG than a JPEG?). But if people could do away with the whole silly infographics fetish and just produce information, that information could sit quite happily in web pages, with the occasional image when necessary. Those web pages are a lot more accessible, have much smaller file sizes and have the ability to include the sort of metadata around them to make them indexable by Google, consumable by blind people and much more.

Now, I’ll grant you one thing. Some things can only be displayed graphically. Here’s an example:

If every infographic were to disappear and be replaced by a picture of a kitten (or better yet, a picture of one of my kittens), the world would probably be a better place. And it probably wouldn’t be any less informed. It’s like the lottery: you don’t actually improve your odds of winning much by buying a ticket. Similarly, you are about as likely to learn useful information about the iPad (or whatever the topic, really) by looking at a picture of my kitten as you are by looking at an infographic. The point of most infographics isn’t to actually convey information: they only convey how much cooler than you the designer is.

Infographics are what happens when Nathan Barley thinks he can do statistics. Let’s be honest: the only audience for them is other self-facilitating new media nodes. Please, make it stop. There is no excuse.


Unprintable PDFs won't save the planet

I was doing some new page patrolling on Wikipedia today, and I came across this article on the WWF file format.

In amongst all the Australian rules football players, Bollywood movies and obscure jazz albums that one goes through when new page patrolling, this stuck out.

It’s a file format designed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (what used to be the World Wildlife Fund) as an environmentally-conscious document format.

Wha—? An environmentally-conscious document format? That’s an object and a property that you don’t see going together if you are sane. It makes about as much sense as saying your yoghurt is low voltage or your toothpaste is skintight.

An environmentally-conscious document is one that actively prevents you from printing it. It turns out a .WWF file is just a PDF file with “don’t print” security flag toggle on.

Which is all well and good, but what if you want to print the document? PDF security flags are somewhere between one of those disable-right-click scripts you find on web pages from beautiful and unique snowflake artist types (and a few porn sites) who don’t want their precious JPEGs stolen and rubbish DRM systems, which is to say most of them. A damn security flag will not stop anyone. Especially as almost all PDF viewer applications except the default Adobe ones have been built in such a way to completely ignore them.

This format is completely pointless. You wouldn’t believe the number of people I see who encounter a file type they don’t understand and instead of showing some initiative and finding an application that might be able to open it just give up. There’s some special pill they give computer users these days which makes them have absolutely no initiative at all and act like damsels in distress. When someone downloads a ‘WWF’ file, they are just going to say “what the fuck is this and why isn’t Adobesoft Crapware 3000 opening it for me?”

Or if they are technically competent, they’ll go and read the Wikipedia page and see “ah, it’s a PDF file”. Then they’ll open it up in an open source PDF reader, remove the security flags and save it as a real PDF file with a “.pdf” extension and use that instead. And they’ll probably print fifty copies of the document just out of spite (or so that they can force the inventor of this idiotic idea eat a few dozen sheets of laserprint if they are ever so unlucky to meet).

So this is confusing for non-technical people and annoying for technical people. And completely ineffective at the stated goal of getting people to print less things out.

What does it do? Shows the WWF as a bunch of technically inept wackaloons and dramatically reduce the likelihood of anyone who encounters this silly idea to ever consider contributing to WWF, even if they are an environmentally-concerned hippie (hint: a lot of geeks are).

Here’s one way to help: stop printing newsletters. Ask your members if they are willing to put up with getting an e-mail newsletter instead of a printed magazine. Get other non-profits and companies to do likewise. Maybe set up a service to manage e-mail newsletter subscriptions for other non-profits.

Turning yourself into a bad joke amongst geeks is no way to save the environment.

If you are a charity or campaigning group and are planning something like this, find someone with some knowledge of computing and send them an e-mail first.


I haven’t really kept up on the copyright wars much, but I’m amused to hear that there exists a company called Perfect 10 which has the dubious honour of having to pretend to be a pornography publisher in order to mask the fact that they are in fact a ‘copyright troll’. Apparently, producing pornography is now more respectable than the fucked up copyright laws.

There’s a joke about Oracle lurking somewhere in here, you know…


Jim DeMint is on the Religious Wrong

Senator Jim DeMint on the U.S. Senate doing business in the run-up to Christmas:

It’s sacrilegious. What’s going on here is just wrong. This is the most sacred holiday for Christians.

Now, here I was thinking it was Easter that was the most sacred holiday for Christians. You know, Judas betraying Jesus, Pilate, the denial of Peter, the cross, the empty tomb, resurrection on the third day, ascension, Lamb of God, Stations of the Cross, all that. You can chuck all the Christmas story out and still be a Christian, but the evangelists always tell you that if the resurrection didn’t happen, all that prayer and religion stuff is a waste of your time.1

I mean, it’s so sacred a holiday that Oliver Cromwell banned celebrations of Christmas.

But what do I know? I only went to Catholic school and studied religion and theology at university. I’m a goddamn hellbound atheist heathen and I know your religion better than you do, Senator DeMint. As the kids say, FAIL.

When the anti nuclear proliferation treaty between Russia and the U.S. falls apart, feel free to blame Senator Jim “I fell asleep in Sunday School” DeMint.

Perhaps he meant to say it is the most sacred holiday for retailers.

  1. There’s a few highly questionable assumptions there too. Like that God’s nature and the whole soteriological scheme is exactly how evangelicals say it is. I kinda don’t buy that, which makes the whole thing come tumbling down. But now’s not the time and place for that.


How not to use the word 'cloud'

The word ‘cloud’ is great. Cloud and wind metaphors enrich poetry and scripture and set the scene in stories. Dark clouds ahead and all that.

In the Old Testament, the Lord comes riding down on a swift cloud from heaven (Isaiah 19, Exodus 34, Numbers 11). Or maybe in the New Testament, the voice comes bellowing from the clouds as in the fantastic story of the Transfiguration wherein Jesus suddenly summons down Elijah and Moses, waking up the dopey disciples from their slumber, and then Peter—clearly the dopiest of the dopey three—suggests laying out three tabernacles for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. BOOM! A big cloud engulfs them and the voice of God starts bellowing: don’t you see, you idiots? It’s me, God! I’m baaack! And this time it’s personal! (Luke 9:28-36 et al). Fantastic passage.

‘Cloud’ in the sense that computer people use it has become an obnoxious, ugly little piece of jargon. It doesn’t abstract away anything useful. It just allows business people, analysts and Web 2.0 types to mystify technology more.

The very metaphor of a cloud has become stale. Engineers have been using ‘cloud’ as a rough abstraction of the network or the Internet on diagrams. Fine. If we are going to reuse the metaphors of computer engineers, why not at least pick some of the cleverer or more interesting bits of engineer-speak? The point about the cloud metaphor as those diagrams use it is that they are abstracting away something essentially unimportant: the data is being transmitted over the ‘net, but in the diagram we are saying it is being processed in some interesting way before being sent through the cloud or after it gets there, something interesting is actually happening.

I mean, blimey, Wikipedia isn’t immune from this kind of idiocy.

Cloud platform services or “Platform as a Service (PaaS)” deliver a computing platform and/or solution stack as a service, often consuming cloud infrastructure and sustaining cloud applications.

I have read that sentence over and over again and I have no bloody clue what it is trying to actually say. A platform that is a service that is also a stack that consumes infrastructure and sustains applications? It is a perfect example of Orwell’s description: “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”.

How is someone non-technical supposed to understand this garbage?

Simple: they aren’t. The whole point of it is to baffle. It is exactly like the financial ‘instruments’ that ruined our economy: the whole point of a credit default swap or a collateralized debt obligation is that nobody understands them except about three banker gurus. Everyone else just buys and sells them on the basis of authority.

Cloud jargon doesn’t help non-technical people because it is far too abstract. And it doesn’t help technical people because it is far too abstract. It is abstract in the wrong way: the abstraction makes it more confusing. If I explain to you what Gmail or Amazon EC2 is, you can kind of see what the costs and benefits of such a service might be. But if I just say “it’s in the cloud”, you are at a complete loss because the abstraction doesn’t actually tell you how or why the technology benefits you.

The closest translation into English I can find of the Wikipedia passage is something like:

Some services on the Internet allow you to run applications on them.

I’m not sure if this is what is actually being said. But that’s because it could mean any number of different things, and there’s no way to tell!

This kind of language infects everything. E-mail providers become cloud mail providers. Hosting services become clouds. Running servers in your own datacenter is running a “private cloud”. As Larry Ellison said, all you have to do is take the pitch you are giving to VCs and do a find-replace in Word for every mention of “Internet” or “Web” and change it to “cloud”.

I’ve found a bunch of services and concepts people like to refer to as ‘cloud’. Below I list a bunch of simple, easy, concrete ways to describe them so that people might actually understand what you are going on about.

  • Gmail, Hotmail → “e-mail provider”
  • Heroku → “Ruby application hosting service”
  • Google App Engine → “Java and Python application hosting service”
  • Dropbox, UbuntuOne → “file hosting and synchronization service”
  • Google Docs, Zoho, Exchange Online/Office Communications Online → “online office suite”
  • EC2, Azure or Rackspace Cloud → “on-demand hosted servers”
  • SimpleDB, MongoHQ, SQL Azure, AppEngine’s datastore → “databases”
  • Salesforce, NetSuite → “online CRM/business management application”
  • “hybrid cloud” → “running some servers ourselves and having some of them run by someone else”
  • “The Intercloud”1 → “The Internet”
  • “netbook”, “cloudbook”, “cloud terminal” → “small laptop computer”
  • “cloud engineering” → “engineering”
  • “cloud backup and recovery” → “backup and recovery over the Internet”
  • “cloud gaming” → “Internet-streamed video games” (or if you want to be cynical “moonshine”)
  • data cloud” → “Semantic Web” or one of the many other pointless rebrandings thereof
  • “Cloud 2” → nothing. It means nothing at all. It’s just marketing.

Save a brain today: stop with the cloud bullshit.

  1. You may think I’m joking. I’m not.


The worst argument for God this week: the argument from iPad.

Victoria Coren has a Guardian article explaining how smart she is.

But, you know, she believes in God. And she seems to think she has a knock-down argument against atheism.

It’s the argument from iPad.

I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.

“It’s scary to say you’re pro-God,” she said. “Those clever atheists are terrifying.”

“Oh, nonsense,” I said. “Let them tell you it’s stupid to believe in something you can’t explain. Then ask them how an iPad works.”

Okay, for philosophical reasons I reject the premise that not knowing how an iPad works is a major concession in the argument over God. But let’s play along.

An iPad is a type of computer.

At the heart of the iPad is a microprocessor, a type of integrated circuit that is used on most computing and consumer electronics devices these days. The specifications for the iPad list it as an A4 chip which uses ARM architecture, a form of reduced instruction set computing (or RISC for short) chip.

The chip inside the iPad serves the function of processing a great series of instructions in sequence at very high speed. The exact detail of this is not something I try to concern myself with being a software guy, but the ‘operation’ section of the CPU article on Wikipedia should explain all.

Basically what is happening is that the computer breaks down every instruction into a series of commands that are basically mathematical in nature. Resizing a photo? That can be broken down into a very large number of NOT, OR, XOR and AND statements. Piece these together logically in the right way and you get some common sequence of instructions that can be automatically fashioned to respond to some user input.

Of course, people don’t think like that. If I have a document and I want to work out what the longest word is, I don’t generally sit down and work out the series of AND, NOT, OR and XOR gates are going to fire off in which order. A mixture of software and hardware does that for me.

So I can write something like:

Or indeed I might call:

words.slice(0, 4)

I’ll leave it up to your imagination what that will return. Hint: Scala 2.8.0, List class.

And what will happen is my computer will take this series of letters and run it through a programme called a compiler which will turn it into what is called bytecode. That bytecode gets given to another piece of software called an interpreter which will translate it into machine code, which will itself be translated into a series of pulses that get sent through to the processor.

What else is there? There’s input and output. Let’s start with input:

You’ve got a few mechanical switches on the device. There’s a volume rocker switch, the home button, a rocker switch that used to control screen rotation and a power button. In principle, if I wanted to know how these worked, it would not be very difficult. I suspect that the switches and buttons are non-mechanical: upon being pressed, they start transmitting a pulsing electricity signal to some control circuit. Those are then interpreted by software and modify values in the memory banks on the device.

There’s also this rather nice multi-touch glass screen, right? How does that work. Well, as the marketing bumpf says, it is a capacitative screen - it uses the process of surface capacitive sensing which has a layer of conductive material like copper placed transparently on the screen. As you move your finger across the glass, you warp the electrostatic field on the screen. Sensors measure said field and send the signals back to the CPU for processing. Obviously, things like the on-screen keyboard are done by detecting when your fingers are touching in the relevant areas. There’s some clever maths that goes on to work this out: basically, with Apple’s iOS devices (not so much in the iPad but in the iPhone/iPod touch devices) the software is predictively resizing the keys. So if you are typing the word “Iraq”, after you’ve typed “Ira” it’ll dynamically resize the portion of the screen which will trigger the “q” character.

Quite how this works is difficult to work out because it’s a trade secret or a patent or whatever by Apple, but basically if you imagine you’ve got a dictionary of words in the user’s language, you create a database that takes those word fragments and matches them up for predictive text, and you then piggy-back on that to work out for each letter cluster (basically the letters around a letter on the keyboard, so ‘q’ might have ‘w’, ‘a’ and maybe ‘s’) what the likelihood of the next letter being one of those, then do the dynamic resizing.

As for seeing multitouch? I’ve done just that. I can’t remember off the top of my head how one does it, but basically if you use the Synaptics driver for Linux lets you ‘watch’ the signals coming from the trackpad in a terminal window using dmesg. You see an X,Y location for each of the fingers. All that fancy pinching and swiping and panning and rotating gestures you do with your fingures on your smartphone or tablet? Just a bunch of X,Y co-ordinates and some clever maths. Did I say ‘just’? That’s pretty cool. I’m not an iOS programmer but a brief read of Apple’s documentation tells me that there is a construct called UIGestureRecognizer in the iOS libraries that implements the mathematics of this.

The software I can tell you a bit more about: the iPad runs a system called iOS, which is a specifically designed version of Mac OS X, which is based on FreeBSD. It uses a microkernel called ‘Mach’. I could explain the relative merits of microkernels vs monolithic kernels.

Now, each of the applications that runs on the iPad is stored on there as an encrypted binary file. They are cross-compiled: this is because the iPad is running on the A4, which is an ARM chip, while the desktop and laptop computers we use tend to run on a CISC architecture, the Intel x86 and the x86_64 spinoff (that 386 or 486 you had back in the dark old days? That’s where x86 comes from - it is a label for the 8086 instruction set).

Most of the applications you run on an iPad were written in a language called Objective C which combines features from the C language with the object and message passing system of Smalltalk. It is implemented in a number of open source compilers, so if I particularly cared about Objective C, I could read a comprehensive specification. If I recall correctly, the compilers Apple (GCC, Clang) use are both open source, so you can inspect what is going on when the computer compiles the code.

Indeed, the nice thing these days is how much of the computer is open on the software side: I needed to port a feature from one language to another the other day. Five minutes on Google gave me the source code for an open source implementation of the language, and in ten minutes I had rewritten most of the logic into my own implementation.

There’s so much more.

On the bottom of the iPad is a USB connector with a thirty-pin proprietary iPod connector. Obviously, I can’t explain how that works because it’s a secret. But the USB standard is open and widely implemented. You can read them all online at usb.org. I hear they are a very good cure for insomnia.

There’s the audio output. It has a single speaker. This works through magnetism which produce sound waves. You hear these with your ear. The same is true with headphones on a smaller scale. There’s probably some AD/DA converters in there too, you know, to convert the digital signals into analogue and back from the microphone. Dunno how a speaker works? Pop into Maplins and for a few quid you can buy a little crappy one you can dissect on your kitchen table.

What else? Wifi. That’s easy enough: there’s an antenna on the device which can send and receive radio signals over in the 2.4 GHz, 3.6 GHz and 5GHz band. The signal is modulated using either orthogonal frequency-divison multiplexing or direct-sequence spread spectrum. The frequency band is split up into channels, numbered from 1 to 14, although you can’t use all of them in all countries for whatever reason. Between the device and the base station are sent a number of ‘frames’ which are basically like a little envelope with a command header, then some contents. Now, because of the way that things are layered, you have the wireless ‘frame’ which, as I said is like an envelope. Then there is communication using a protocol called TCP/IP - the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. This sends out ‘packets’ which have a header on them and a body. The ‘frame’ takes it from the device to the wireless router, then the wireless router takes the ‘packet’ out of the frame and sends that over another link. That might be over another type of radio like the mobile phone network, or up an Ethernet cable, or to a satellite or down an optical fibre link. Or it might be in the method described in RFC 1149: A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers. That is a bit slow and your iPad might time out waiting for the lolcats video on YouTube.

There’s an accelerometer in the iPad too. There’s a Bluetooth radio in there.

That should be enough to be getting on with for now.

Again, I’m not sure what this has to do with anything.

I mean, nobody is seriously out there thinking the iPad is invisible, undetectable, present in every atom and in communication with human beings, able to upend the laws of physics at a whim, or particularly bothered about your sexual orientation. The iPad doesn’t answer prayers, nor does it demand worship, perform miracles, send only-begotten-sons down to earth to cleanse the world’s sins, demand complete obedience (in fact, if you decide to sell it on eBay and buy a Galaxy Tab, it won’t even try and complain to you) or cast prophecies and send down spirits. Sadly there is probably some theologian writing a book for some misconceived “theology and popular culture” series on at least one of those things and its relation to some piece of consumer electronics.

Here is one important difference between the iPad and God: a reasonably educated layman can find out a huge amount of accurate, well-sourced, evidence-based, peer-reviewed, reliable (we could at a stretch call it “true”) information about how the iPad works. Computer science experts across the globe have near-uniform consensus on how exactly something like a CPU operates: and if you don’t believe them, you can build your own or buy a cheap one off the shelf, plonk it on a breadboard and poke it with electricity. There are no great schisms or complex hermeneutical arguments about how many electrons dance on the head of a PDP-1 or whether or not the creator of the universe prefers UNIX, VMS or DOS.

Computer science may be a dismal science, but “how does an iPad work?” can be answered pretty well even by me, a humanities graduate who keeps well away from assembly language and soldering irons.

That said, if you want smart theists? Look in your local philosophy department. Peter van Inwagen is pretty smart and I hear he believes in God. Richard Swinburne is pretty smart. Alvin Plantinga, Dean Zimmerman, Michael Rea. I reckon that Thomas Aquinas was probably pretty good in the brains department. And he can be a bit woolly at times but Rowan Williams could be on that list too.

The rest of Coren’s arguments - for a self-proclaimed smart theist - wouldn’t pass muster in an A-level philosophy classroom. Shame. Smart theists can be so much more interesting than the parade of idiotic fundamentalists repeating mindless and frequently debunked tropes about atheism.


Daily Mail in sexism shocker. Sigh.