Archive for October 2006
It’s Sunday, and I’m trying to read one of several books in my reading stack, but I keep falling prey to distractions. There’s news to read (see my public blogroll on Bloglines), episodes of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel, and then there are my ongoing audio triage efforts.
I’ve only bought a score or so CDs since I moved to Dublin, seven years ago, but I bought hundreds in the previous eight years in London. Most of those were budget remainders from the infamous Steve’s Sounds (just off Charing Cross Rd. near Leicester Square), or cheap back catalogue from the big stores. Only a fraction are worthy of keeping, so I’ve devised a system of triage to help me sort through them:
- CDs with special packaging, worthy of keeping as they are;
- CDs worth keeping for the music: these lost their jewel cases and go into a binder or sleeves
- Music worth keeping on the chance I’ll want listen to it someday: these get ripped to MP3 (192kb/s average bitrate), backed up to DVD-ROM, and the discs discarded;
Before I left for Ireland I went through this process in part, and put almost all my music in category 2, discarding the cases. I did a lot of CD ripping then (standard 128kb/s), backed them up to CD-ROM and carried them with me, but kept the CDs themselves in storage at a friend’s and eventually brought them to Dublin. Some suffered damage in storage, and I’m downgrading most of them to category 3. Today I’m cleaning up discs as best as I can, ripping them “deaf” (not vetting the results), while I get on with other things. If I find out in years to come that there are errors, there will be swearwords, followed by a shrug of the shoulders.
I have previously put albums in category 1 based on the packaging alone – I hate destroying beautiful things! – but there are currently too many of those, and I’ll have to take a harder line with those. If it’s an album I haven’t missed, or have no reasonable chance of reselling, it’s in category 3, though some will be category 2. One example is David Bowie’s Outside, a category 2 work in a nice Digibox that has got to go.
There are a few I can possibly resell, such as my rare boxed gold disc of Sylvian & Fripp’s Damage – the original squeaky-clean 1994 mix by Fripp, not the revisionist “warm & fuzzy” 2000 mix by Sylvian. I probably won’t, though, since I was at the concert when it was partly recorded (Royal Albert Hall, December 1993), despite a badly-sprained ankle. Both Sylvian & Fripp think it’s an important work, and so do I.
Well, I’m glad that one’s over. Annoyances at work, a nasty cold and, just to put the cherry on top, I even took a tumble on to concrete on Wednesday, which explains why I have scratches on my hands and face, and haven’t shaved for days. (Ouch.)
The fall was one of those nasty confluences of little things that can spoil your whole day: I’d just set out for work, still woozy from the cold, wearing shoes with hundreds of miles on them that have worn unevenly, trying to get the music in my new headphones to play reliably. Mix that with bulging, cracked concrete near a building site, and you can guess the rest: the Earth sucks. I wasn’t badly hurt, but I could tell the day was over before it began, so I went straight back home, called in sick and stopped trying to be a “good little worker”.
The week had some compensations: I ordered a new phone on Monday, was told it would be here from the UK in two days, and it arrived on Tuesday. It’s a HTC S620 Smartphone, replacing the phone I lost and the 3-year-old iPaq that flaked out on me. The purchase was the result of some serious thought into just what I need such personal electronics for. It does the essential things I want: it’s a phone, of course, with internet access through either GPRS or WiFi: I can set up “push email” if I want to, though I’m in no particular hurry to do that, since email can generally wait till I’m ready.
I had a little concern about how it would perform as a electronic book reader – something I’m appreciating more and more – but Mobipocket came to the rescue there, and the screen is incredibly readable in all light conditions I’ve seen so far. It’s a media player, of course, since I added a 512MB MicroSD card (for €16 extra) and a Bluetooth stereo headset for another €40. Finding games is a little trying, with older packages not working, but I have Sudoku and Poker going, as well as some Space Invaders. There’s even DOOM for it, though so far it performs poorly.
It’s not been all plain sailing: I’m still trying to get GPRS set up, and audio problems were distracting me when I took the tumble: I had too many applications open, so the phone was struggling to process the high bit-rate MP3s I like. The headphones can cut out at times, but keeping the phone on the same side as the headphone’s Bluetooth receiver helps a lot – my body was getting in the way of the signal. The lack of a word processor is odd, though I didn’t notice since I’m using Microsoft OneNote Mobile, with the notes synchronized to the Tablet PC alongside the usual Outlook data. The major remaining hole is Maths: I’ve only just found a usable scientific calculator, and there’s no spreadsheet program.
That’s a minor omission, considering I now have a single device that is smaller and lighter than my old phone or PDA were, and is more usable than either, thanks to the keyboard and screen.
|You are an Atheist|
When it comes to religion, you’re a non-believer (simple as that).
You prefer to think about what’s known and proven.
You don’t need religion to solve life’s problems.
Instead, you tend to work things out with logic and philosophy.
Well, I answered a few questions, and that’s what it told me…
Recent debates on Atheism have me asking: do atheists have to know a lot about religion to be able to dismiss it? Some of the discussions I’ve read go in to excrutiating detail on religion’s origins and history, the theological justifications for it, or lack thereof.
I work in IT, and firmly believe in keeping things simple, and reliable. When I see theists constructing complicated arguments for the existence of God, I have the persistent impression that they’re having to work too hard at it, like Wil. E. Coyote flailing his legs around in the hope that gravity will leave him alone!
We do have experts in the field, such as Prof. Richard Dawkins, who has spent some time studying theology and discussing it with “modern” (i.e. educated, non-dogmatic) theologists. He interviewed some for his Channel 4 documentary The Root Of All Evil? and wrote about them in his book The God Delusion. Theology is a major “humanity” field, which encompasses philosophy, sociology, epistemology, psychology and more: you can spend your whole life studying it, or your whole life arguing with theologists. Sorry: my life is too short. My “personal atheism” is far simpler, starting with the absence of belief, how the word “atheism” is the best description of that, and I take it from there.
This also helps to explain why atheists aren’t generally out there pushing their agenda: we have literally “nothing” to be evangelistic about. The current books by Sam Harris and Dawkins are a sign of something else: we would have little to say if we were just left in peace, but the way the world is going – particularly the USA – appears to be a precursor to theocracy and religious war.
Telling people “your faith is founded on nothing” is unpleasant, and should not be necessary in an ideal world. I don’t like to antagonise people that way, it feels uncomfortable, and I don’t do it to friends unless the topic comes up in discussion. But out here, on the Internet, I can be more blunt; not only does the Pope have no Clothes, people are so invested in the idea of clothes that nudity horrifies them!
Here’s an experiment I recommend for anyone interested in getting to the heart of the matter: find a quiet room, sit down, and put on John Lennon’s Imagine. Listen to the lyrics, and try to Imagine what John was imagining. Then, after the song has ended, sit in silence for a while, and listen. Your ears become more sensitive as time goes by. Is someone you know walking around outside? That computer fan is a bit noisy, isn’t it? Listen to your breathing, your heartbeat. That tune stuck in your head? Ignore it, it will go away.
The more I use the analogy of “atheism as silence”, the more apt it seems. There is music in the universe, some of it the product of religion, some created by people without reference to religion, most of it the soundtrack to the universe itself. Religion itself, to my “ears”, is unnecessary noise. We could debate the relative merits of pink noise vs. white noise vs. brown noise, but your ears will thank you for just turning the noise off.
I have Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion here at the moment; I’ve been stuck at 1/3 of the way through for some time, with work and other reading taking priority. My position on atheism is quite simple: I’ve been calling myself a “theoretical agnostic, practical atheist”. This is summarised in this apposite quote from Isaac Asimov, Free Inquiry, Vol. 2, Spring 1982:
I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.
Recently I figured out another way to put it: the Abrahamic god (of Judaism, Christianity & Islam) is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. So, the idea of there being such a god “somewhere else” is a non-starter, since “omnipresence” means there is no such thing as “somewhere else”, or “some other time”.
If he is Omnipresent, he is here now – but do we see him, today?
If he is Omnipotent, he can do anything – but do we see him doing anything, today?
If he is Omniscient, he knows everything – so why is there so much stupidity and ignorance in the world, today?
If there is useful information in scriptures, it is a product of its time, containing some universal truth, but also much that used to make sense but no longer does. (Example: there was a time when pork was unsafe, but we’ve learned how to cure it.) But this kind of change is too complicated for mere people to handle – not out of stupidity, but out of laziness – so I’m not surprised to see a fundamentalist push to regress society to match the scriptures. (Hey, life was simpler 2000 years ago, let’s go back!)
A god that might exist, but can not be perceived; who sees this screwed-up world and does nothing to fix it; who knows everything but lets his people wallow in ignorance; is a god who is absolutely no use to me. Leave that idea behind, the sun keeps shining and the Earth keeps turning. If there is a teapot in orbit around the Sun, it’s made of chocolate.
For years I’ve been a little worried about a demographic trend that has the potential to stop “positive evolution” in its tracks. By “positive evolution” I mean the idea that evolution leads to better, smarter people. Perhaps it’s considered elitist to wish for such a thing, and I know that assuming it would be a fallacy, but one may hope, may one not? After all, we don’t have another life to look forward to, so it’s natural for me to wish for more from this one.
I’m hardly the first to wonder where the human race is heading – as any Devo fan will know – but the trend that worries me is the falling birth rate in the developed countries in general, and among the most intelligent and educated sections of society in particular.
Unfortunately, in the absence of education and intelligence, it’s back to “survival of the fittest”, in my estimation. Today that seems to mean “breed like bunnies”. In poor countries this seems to imply “have many children, because some will die, and who will look after you in your old age?”. In the lower demographic strata of Western societies, especially Europe, this is read as “have many children, because the government will pay you and do what you can’t do for them”. I won’t get in to the politics, but this is compounded by poor education and awareness of family planning, which religion sometimes plays a part in. The Catholic ban on contraception is the obvious example here.
I keep in touch with various people I’ve met over the years: many of them are not married, and those who are have families of one or two children. One friend has a third on the way, which is very much the exception. I’m not exactly “high class”, whatever that is, but my acquaintances are all professional, working people, the “salt of the earth”.
Compare and contrast that with the poorer countries of the world, and the less-educated parts of the developed countries: Africa, Central America, the US South. I was shocked to see the 2005 statistics for Afghanistan, which had a birth rate of 46.6 per 1000 per year, and a 20 per 1000 death rate, that still leaves them which a 2.67% growth rate. I have all the stats in a spreadsheet, so I can sort them by the different factors, and they make sobering reading. The poorest countries – nearly all in Africa – are growing the fastest, thwarting any attempts to improve their living standards.
In the USA, this trend has not gone unnoticed by Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, whose new film Idiocracy was belatedly “dumped” in US cinemas and has not made it to Europe yet, if it ever does. It imagines an ordinary man who spends 500 years in stasis, and emerges in to a world that has gone downhill, intellectually, leaving him the smartest person in it by far.
In my view, even if things don’t go all the way down that road, we are still facing a “cap” on the intelligence of the human race: with the smartest people the best at reading the signs all around them and having small families, while the lumpenproletariat* think only of their short-term needs and desires, and not about how their world will be affected by their profligacy.
I am well aware that talk of “improving the human race” carries all sort of negative connotations, from elitism to eugenics, and I’m not suggesting any kind of direct intervention in what I perceive as a negative trend. However, what strikes me as most relevant to this forum is the way organized religion prevents individual people from realizing their potential in many different ways. Wilful ignorance of leaders, obstructions to family planning initiatives, education sabotaged by religious beliefs… those are the areas where I hope Prof. Dawkins’ book can make a difference, perhaps eventually proving me wrong!
* I’m kidding! Please stop hitting me with copies of Das Kapital!
Another Saturday morning where I should have been getting out and about, but it was spent mucking abound with computers, making mistakes and solving them.
I have my work notebook computer at home, a Tablet PC. This runs Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, of course, which is fine, except that it’s well over a year old, and is a bit gummed up with all kinds of stuff, meaning it takes forever to boot up. I’ll be giving it a fresh OS installation after Windows Vista is available, but I’m stuck with it for now.
I have a desktop PC at home, running Windows XP, that is mostly used for games, but my “everyday” PC is my old Compaq notebook, running Ubuntu Linux. I’ve settled on Ubuntu, after much trial and error, because I really like the modularity and its Debian “apt” package management system. For example, though it comes with the Gnome Desktop Manager installed, and it’s pretty quick, I was looking for something even lighter. The installation sources, on the Internet include “xubuntu”, a configuration based around the lightweight Xfce4 desktop manager, which I installed.
I didn’t have much confidence that it would support the applications I was using, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well everything worked. In effect, I have a 4-year-old notebook that is quicker to reboot, and more responsive, than a one-year-old notebook. (The desktop is quicker than either, running Windows Vista RC1, but that has more to do with fast disks, 2GB RAM in there, and the AMD64 CPU.)
A while ago I thought I ought to try Ubuntu on the Tablet PC: I was at work, so I removed the internal disk, and did the Ubuntu installation on my external 80GB USB drive. No major problems, but two hiccups: one fixed, the other unfixable. The first hiccup was the Tablet driver: it just wasn’t loaded, despite the system being recognised as having the tablet hardware, but that was resolved by manually loading it. The other is more annoying: the boot process from the USB disk is slow enough, but compounded by its insistence on running a lengthy disk check on the other partition on the same disk, every time.
This brings us up to today: looking for a quicker Linux bootup on the Tablet PC, I decided to try installing Linux on a 1GB flash device I have lying around: it’s actually a little MP3 player I wasted money on, with horrible buttons and a non-standard headphone socket. It’s even failied totally at one point, but I found instructions on booting it in to a maintenance mode, then (eventually) new firmware and a program to install it. It’s back, as good as it ever was, but I might get some use out of it.
My first attempt, this morning, was a bit of a disaster: not only did it not boot, the installation process installed a new boot sector: not on the flash drive, but on the local hard disk, the one running Windows XP Tablet PC edition. This had the effect of making it unbootable: it was the newfangled GRUB bootloader, that expects to read its settings from a configuration file on a Linux volume, which is not something you’re going to find on a Windows XP partition.
What to do about it? Well, I have a Windows XP SP2 installation CD, from which I can fix the Master Boot Record on the disk, if I boot in Recovery mode.The problem with that is the need to enter the Administrator password for the XP installation on the disk, and the Administrator account has been removed, for security reasons.
Did I have to reinstall XP? No, there are better ways. After a bit of reading, I was able to configure the GRUB boot loader, still working on the USB disk, to boot the Windows XP partition. (The required “map” commands are actually in the GRUB FAQ – a great timesaver.) However, is that drive always going to be available? What if I forget it somewhere? I had to fix the boot record on the internal drive, to be safe.
Before GRUB, there was LILO, the Linux Loader: nowhere near as flexible, and the cause of some aggravation in pastLinux installations. Since I could boot XP successfully, well enough mean the emergency was over, I decided to just install LILO on the internal disk and see what happened. It worked, first time: in the absence of any custom configuration, LILO just boots the first partition it finds – which is exactly what I needed it to do. Problem solved, for now
What did I learn? Well, I had wondered if I was being paranoid about the “friendly” install process, by removing the internal disk the first time I did this kind of installation. I guess not, eh? After this, I’m going to the flash disk installation again, with the paranoia in place and the internal disk removed. Then I’m going shopping.
I’ve subscribed to various “tag feeds”, on topics I’m interested in, and one of them popped up a typical Christian view of Atheism, one that “focuses on the person, not on the issue”. I started writing a comment , but I was having so much fun, it got a bit too big to be a comment, and big enough to be a post here. Before reading my responses, go ahead and read the article: 6 Points To Remember When Debating An Atheist, then my responses.
- I’ve never heard that one, and can only imagine it being used by someone who was already angry, and then by only a few. Just be aware atheists regard outright evangelizing as pointless, and prefer rational discussion without attempts to convert them. If by “Christians like you” they mean “Evangelists”, doesn’t that tell you something about how aggressive Evangelism fits in to a modern adult society? Tone it down!
- If someone calls you a “hypocrite” directly, that’s just insulting. However, while atheists generally don’t accept bible quotes as meaningful to them, many have read the bible, and are aware of the contradictory messages it contains (even if they can’t quote chapter & verse offhand). To say you follow the Bible, but only the “nice” New Testament bits and not the harsh bits, is to risk accusations of hypocrisy – that’s (mostly) where that kind of talk starts.
- I imagine that is an occupational risk for evangelists: if you don’t want resistance to your arguments, don’t evangelise to atheists. Or do you assume “they just haven’t heard the Word”, and are waiting for you to enlighten them? That can make you sound patronising, which some (like myself) really do find insulting. Avoid.
- I’m sorry, this is just the kind of really old fallacy that annoys rational atheists. What is so hard about the concept of people having “no belief”? Were you born with belief? Becoming an atheist is no harder than forgetting something you were taught, or enjoying silence after hearing noise. If an atheist tells you “that’s how I see it”, and you contradict them, you’re saying “I know atheism better than you” – despite you not being an atheist – and the discussion will go nowhere but downhill from there. Avoid!
- I don’t know what kind of atheists you go looking for, or what you say to them, but statements like “their bread and butter is in tearing up the Bible and shoving it down the Believer’s throat” are not helpful. That is mischaracterising atheists as “anti-Christian”, which I suppose makes it easier for you to hate them, but it’s not true, even if your preacher says so. Most atheists don’t go looking for fights, and don’t care what people believe, as long as no harm comes of it – but the last point is very relevant in the world today. Personally, I don’t even mention my atheism unless the topic comes up, and would only resort to such tactics in the face of an evangelical assault. However, if Christians feel under attack by atheists today, you need only look at the world today, the USA and Middle East in particular, and understand also that we don’t think Christianity is fundamentally (?) better than Islam, over long-term history.
- This is related to (4), I think: if you insist on evangelizing, when that is clearly unwelcome, that’s just bad behaviour on your part that is going to raise hackles, and while you may believe it is your Mission, be aware you may be overstepping personal or social boundaries in the process. You have to be sensitive, take no for an answer, and back up a statement with more than a bible quote – which tells an atheist nothing useful! Avoid any “arguments from authority” like “the Bible says so” – what is an atheist going to make of that? We know you believe it, but we don’t, so telling someone “you’re wrong because my book says so” is never a good idea, any more than “I say you’re wrong”!
Summary; the article is hostile to atheists, and contains a lot of overexaggeration designed to portray atheists as irrational, hostile, or unthinking – the kind of rhetoric a preacher might use to whip up a frenzy in his congregation. I don’t doubt you will meet such people – stupidity knows no religious divide – but if you insist on characterising all atheists in such negative terms, don’t be surprised if you find atheists hostile to your approach. My advice would be: chill out, treat the people you talk to as your intellectual equals, and assume they know and have thought about all this stuff. They just came to different answers, and who are you to tell them they are wrong, if no harm comes of what they believe or not?
If a Muslim says to you (as often they do): “if you but read the Qu’Ran, you will become a Muslim”, how do you react? Do you think there’s anything in there you need to know, or that it has the power to change your life? Do you accept Allah’s authority, because Islam says so? Well, atheists feel the same way about all “holy scriptures” and religions, and regard “God” as just another superstition they don’t believe in, alongside Vishnu, Fairies, and Santa Claus.
With the release of Sam Harris‘ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Richard Dawkins‘ The God Delusion, discussions of Religion and Atheism are currently high on the cultural agenda. I’m currently halfway through the latter book, which is not yet out in the USA, but I’ve already had discussions with a few people.
Much of it has to do with morals, since theists promote the idea of god-given morals as part of the rationale for religion in the world today, saying either:
- “atheists have no morals”
- “secular morals are baseless without religious authority”
I’ll ignore the contradiction between those two ideas for the moment. Various writers approach this question from different angles: Dawkins, being an evolutionary biologist, naturally focuses on evolutionary explanations, and the documentary Root Of All Evil? shows him observing “moral” behaviours in apes, for example. When “immoral” behaviours can get you killed – unprovoked attacks on others, disease through promiscuity, etc. – natural selection tends to favour the opposite behaviours.
Another particularly enervating “straw man” argument goes like this: “atheism is a religion, because its followers believe there is no God”. My response to this goes something like “atheism is to religion as silence is to noise”, which suits my preference for silence over almost all forms of sound. For a more detailed refutation of this particular argument, a good place to start is the following post by SilverTiger. Quote:
More bluntly still (because religious believers are apt to be very obtuse on this point): I do not have to prove that God does not exist; you have to prove he does.
For years I was opposed to the idea of drinking at home, knowing too well how much that contributes to alcoholism in Scotland in particular, and out of worry about going down that road myself. I think it’s going to be OK now, since I’m adapting the rule I’ve been using for other things, such as food: less quantity, more quality. I still have some way to go: both the wine and the cheese cost more than I like to spend on luxuries, yet are still affordable.
So, why the whine with the cheese? Work. It’s been highly annoying over the last two weeks, with the most bizarre things happening to customers, which require explanations from me, and I can’t realistically give the correct answer: “shit happens”. This week was complicated by the additional burden of the case monitoring role, assessing incoming cases for quality and viability: five hours per day lost on technical triage, without the periods of peace and quiet I require to get any serious work done.
Even when work is interrupted, it’s still a pain: a call from O2, asking me if I wanted a reduction in my phone costs? Of course I do, but I assumed there was a catch: the change of plan comes with an 18-month contract. As if I can guarantee anything about the next six months, never mind the next 18?
Just to cap it all, I’m almost certainly going to Bangalore (India) near the end of November, to give training. It’s Winter then, but also Monsoon season, so I’ll be carrying two umbrellas. I was asked to go, and while I’m hardly enthusiastic about the idea, I could hardly refuse. It’s probably a good thing for me in the long run, it might delay the onset of Grumpy Old Manhood a little longer.
Hey, what can go wrong, in a city of 10,000 people per square kilometer, and the oldest sewage system in the world?