Monthly Archives: July 2013

Four Books that Changed My Life

The Risc OS Programmers Reference Manual


I got into programming in the early 80s, when computer games came printed as type-in programs in magazines. I didn’t know a single person who could program, and I had no reference to refer to. When I was fifteen or so, I was on a trip to London with my parents, and I spotted this set of books in Foyles bookshop. They were really expensive. But my Mum pushed to buy them for me. I still credit them as being the point where I began to program properly, and seriously. And since programming is still the core of what I do, they hands-down win as the book that most changed my life.

Fear and Trembling. Søren Kierkegaard

This book was central to the journey I took as a theology undergraduate. In the interview for a university place, the tutor said told me that a secular theology school was not the place to learn more about my faith. Sure enough a large minority of believers on the course rapidly lost their faith. I didn’t. My faith changed, I became would now be called a ‘progressive Christian’, though I hadn’t heard the term at the time. This book was key in making that happen.

Kierkegaard revisits the Abraham and Isaac story, retelling it over and over, but each time the story goes astray. Each time he allows the characters to act in reasonable ways, and the story derails. Eventually we conclude, with him, that the story is unreasonable. But more than that, the unreasonableness is crucial – that unreasonableness is at the heart of religious belief.

The Form of the Book. Jan Tschichold

I’d considered becoming a graphic designer as an undergraduate, and when I finished my degree and went to work for the American Baptist Church I did their graphic design work (among many other things). I bought this book at that point, and it immediately captivated me. I reread it over and over, and still return to it every year or so.

Tschichold was a typographer and the designer for Penguin books in the late ’40s, when it defined the look and feel of the modern paperback. The book is ostensibly about the mechanics of book design: paper size, line height, font-choice, title page layout, and the like. But as in all good books, it is the subtext that makes it compelling. In this case the book gives a comprehensive aesthetic education. This book made me see the world differently.

The Origins of Order. Stuart Kauffman

I’d read about Kauffman’s work as I thought about doing a PhD, and I bought this book just before starting my research. A few years later, I was at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and was lucky enough to spend some time with Stuart. This book profoundly changed the way I look at the world. While I was at Santa Fe I worked on a problem in developmental paleobiology using mathematics from this book.

The book is long and technical (Kauffman’s “At Home in the Universe” is a popular science version, though I think Kauffman writes better for a technical audience). It argues that order is not an amazing, accidental byproduct of the natural world, nor a pre-condition of evolution. Self-organization arises, almost inevitably, from very general features of the universe. In my view this very under-appreciated work demolishes 90% of fine-tuning arguments, and is the main reason I am convinced there is vast amounts of life beyond the earth.


There are plenty more books that have a story for me, but are in the next tier down. Books such as Minksy’s Society of Mind, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Paden’s Religious Worlds, Crossan’s The Historical Jesus and Levy’s Artificial Life. And of course the bible, particularly the New Testament (and within that Mark’s gospel) would be high on the list, if I hadn’t excluded it under the rules of “Desert Island Disks”.

If you’re a blogger, and are up for a bit of self revelation, how about creating your own list? Or leave a comment with some of your life-changing books and how they came to effect you.


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Why God Doesn’t Explain Anything

Does God explain why there is something rather than nothing?

Certainly lots of people think it does. Even folks who’ve conceded that God doesn’t explain why there are humans and bonobos and annelid worms, nor even hurricanes and eclipses, disease, death and insanity. To them, if God is not to be placed in the shrinking gaps of scientific explanation*, there’ll always be a big enough gap for him at its foundation.

There has to be a ground of all being, a reason for there to be something and not nothing, doesn’t there?

God Explains Nothing


But God, no matter how abstractly conceived, is not an answer to those problems. It might seem like an answer. But it is not.

It fails because it begs the question. What is the ground of the being of the ground of all being? Why is there a ground of all being rather than nothing?

If the question is: “why is there something rather than nothing?”, explanations of the form “because there is an X” are transparently invalid.


It is a trick of language.

We think of the universe as being the everything that needs explanation, but then we ask silly questions. What is outside the universe?, what came before the universe?, are there other universes?

If you define universe as the extent of contiguous space-time connected to the here and now, then those questions could make sense.

But a proponent of this argument wouldn’t be satisfied if the ground of all being turned out to be a black hole in a parent universe, or a quantum fluctuation. They’d say “yes, but why is there that universe, or that quantum beahvior, rather than nothing?” Quite!

But somehow proponents seem to think a suitably abstract, wooly, mystical answer is immune to the same response.

Why is there Something Rather Than Nothing?

I suspect the question is meaningless. At the very least, I cannot figure out what form an answer could have that wouldn’t beg the question.

The only answer seems to be “because there is”, and it doesn’t help to use “God” as a synonym for that and pretend you’ve said something meaningful.

How about you? Do you find the idea that there is a ground of all being compelling?

* This is significant. This objection only works to concepts of God that don’t explain other things by the intervention of God. If you have an evangelical view of God, this post is irrelevant, because God is the explanation of other things. Unfortunately, many of those can be checked, and don’t turn out to be true. So while you avoid the philosophical issue that way, you end up skewering yourself on the fact that there are far more reasons for rejecting the existence of a theistic God.


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Duncan’s Law

In an internet discussion, opponents will only ever respond to your weakest point.

So don’t give an off the cuff example, because you’ll end up discussing that one thing for the rest of the thread. In fact, examples of any kind are dangerous, because real life is complex: there’ll almost always be some insignificant part of any example that doesn’t overwhelmingly illustrate your point. And again, that’s what you’ll be discussing from now on.

And, when you do, your opponents will be revelling in the non semper ergo numquam fallacy: thinking they can shoot down your argument if they can disprove any part of it, regardless of how slight the technicality.

If your opponent is reasonably antagonistic to your position, there is very little point in trying to break this law. Because this is a prisoner’s dilemma: if you discuss reasonably and your opponent follows Duncan’s Law, you will just sound like you’re conceding. And your reasonable language will get thrown back at you from that point on, as evidence of your concession and perhaps duplicity.

The more two parties engage in this, the more likely they are to descend into insults and acrimony. Because both of them feel that their position is being belittled, they are being ignored, and the other party is arguing in bad faith. Because, they are. It is easy to identify it in the other person, but almost impossible to notice how much of an ass you’re being yourself.

If two parties end up insulting each other, you can usually trace it back to Duncan’s Law. At some point, each felt the other was not properly engaging with their position, but instead grandstanding on trivial sideshows.

This is why many internet discussions go so badly.

This is why people who gamely try to engage on their opponent’s blogs end up sounding like trolls, or being made to feel so unwelcome that they leave.

The law also applies to some forms of scholarship, but perhaps the long lead time makes it less pronounced.

I do this, particularly with creationists. Do you?


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Reading the Bible in Capital Letters

We had an interesting discussion group tonight, looking at William Barclay’s commentary on John’s gospel. Barclay is thoroughly evangelical, and manages to read his entire theology into every word. I gamely tried to say that sometimes words were just words. I don’t think anyone believed me. So in the last consolation of the defeated, I’m going to say it here on my blog!

Contracts and other legal documentation use Capital Letters on words to indicate that the word is used in a very specific way, according to a specific and consistent idea, that is defined somewhere in the document. In a contract, I might write “This agreement is between Holmes Limited, with a registered address at 221b Baker Street, London (the Customer) and”. Thereafter I can write “The Customer agrees to…” and we know there’s no ambiguity: we can’t be talking about any customer, or even any company at 221b Baker Street, the meaning is definite and intended.

Some Christians tend to read the bible as if it were mostly written in Capital Letters. As if words were not words, so much as specific terms. So when, in John’s gospel, we read

God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.

— John 3:16 (tr mine)

it becomes

God so Loved the World that He Gave His only Son, so Whoever Believes in Him might not Perish, but have Eternal Life.

A word like ‘Believe’ has to be read in terms of the whole canon of evangelical thought on what constitutes right and salvific Belief.

This just doesn’t seem a sane approach to me.

Now, sure, John had something in mind when he wrote those words. But what he had in mind was some underlying idea that he chose the word Belief to help communicate, not a definition of Belief. To ask what ‘Belief’ means in that verse is to allow the tail to wag the dog.

He used ‘belief’ for the same reason we all use words: to express part of our intended meaning. And by reading the whole gospel we can perhaps get closer to John’s overall idea of eternal life. For example: we might note that John also says

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has eternal life.

–John 6:54 (tr mine)

We use words not to fence off and fortify meanings, but to point towards fuzzy ideas that otherwise would defy description. And we all do that in different ways. Each of us even makes different choices of word at different times to sweep up different allusions, nudge the hearer toward different emotions, and hopefully herd them roughly in the direction we want them to go. In short, we rarely speak in upper case.

Why does this matter?

I think it matters because language is an excellent means of control. If we control the meaning of words, we subtly control the concepts that can be made out of them.

Part of evangelicalism, particularly its fundamentalist threads, is an effort to define and control the use of words in order to discredit and marginalise others who use the same words to express a different theology.

By defining Eternal Life in a particular way, and Belief in a particular way, they can point to John 3:16 and say “The bible says clearly here: if you Believe in him, you have Eternal Life.” And because the slight of hand happened when they defined both terms, you might miss that they’ve only given their own opinion.

It seems obvious to me that the writer of John’s gospel had quite a different idea of eschatology that modern evangelicalism. But I’m going further than that, why do we even assume John had some specific consistent and constrained legal definition in mind at all? Why couldn’t John just be using ‘believe’ here because he felt its existing connotations were the most helpful to make his point? A point that, in other contexts (as in John 6:54) he chose different words to express.

Figuring this out is hard for many evangelicals I think, because evangelical theology is so often about what words mean or what they should mean. Evangelical bible studies focus on getting the meanings of words right (“what is true Belief?”, “what are Spiritual Gifts?”, “how do I Know I am Saved?”). And so, even if you can make an argument that a word doesn’t mean quite what someone thinks it does, the underlying assumption that it has a Capital Letter remains.

What do you think? Have I failed to convince you too?

I’ve written before on a related topic here.


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Joel Watts, DMCA abuse, and Dubious Evidence

I wish I wasn’t writing about this again. Mostly because, for a certain segment of readers, this is going to be final proof I’ve got some personal grudge against Joel, and protesting the opposite is going to sound hollow when I’ve written about this three times.

But if there’s something I hate more than sounding like a vigilante, it is flagrant dishonesty.

So in Post 1, I discussed how Joel Watts retroactively edited a page to remove a creative commons license after issuing a DMCA take down request for copyright violation on a copy of that page.

In Post 2, I discussed the legalities of DMCA and why Joel’s insistance that WordPress had agreed with his copyright claim wasn’t true.

In the comments to post 1, Paul D pointed me to suggestions of tampering in one of the bits of ‘evidence’ Joel put on his site. I downloaded the image, looked carefully, and I agree, this image has clear indications of being set-up to misrepresent the sequence of events in the original copyright claim.

An annotated version of Joel's evidence (click through to see the details). Image a fair use (Criticism and news reporting) of an image by Joel Watts at:

An annotated version of Joel’s evidence (click through to see the details). Image a fair use (Criticism and news reporting) of an image by Joel Watts at:

It appears to me that the image shows Joel in the process of manually changing the time and date backwards to exactly the time and date he claims to have sent a previous email. And he has disconnected from the internet as a precaution while he does so. Whatever the reason (Paul gives a reasonable conclusion in this comment), this is really saddening.

Of course, there might be a valid reason for this suspicious behaviour. Even if there isn’t, Joel could invent one if he wanted to, I’m sure: post-hoc rationalisation is humanity’s only superpower, after all. But as it stands, this is incredibly suspicious and given the chain of events so far, it is hardly surprising.

So, if this is evidence that Joel didn’t attempt to contact Neil before issuing the DMCA, what of it?

Well, it doesn’t affect the substance of the legal case. It would mean Joel broke WordPress terms, not the DMCA process (which does not say you have to make any attempt to contact someone who you believe is infringing).

And it doesn’t much change my dim view of the morality of the DMCA take down, nor of Joel’s subsequent changing of the license. As I said to Neil R in a comment, I understand the temptation to keep digging when you find yourself caught out.

It’s just, well, really? Setting up evidence? The irony of quoting McCarthy isn’t lost on me, but: have you no sense of decency?

I’m on a serious downer now. I hope (pray?) this is the last that needs to be said about this. But I wrote this because I deeply care about copyright bullying. And I feel it is important to shine a light on the way it is abused with a hair trigger and a lack of transparency. Even when that happens by someone who I previously felt rather well disposed to.

And, for all those who are feeling overly warm and fuzzy to me over this, I’m afraid, I still think there was a historical Jesus 😉

Copyright Use: I have created an image above, by transforming part of a pre-existing work that is copyright, for the purpose of non-commercial criticism and comment, in a manner protected under US law, Title 17, §107:

the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

But as I said in the last post, Joel only needs to issue a DMCA take down and it will be removed without consideration of the merits of his claim. But, if that happens, I will counter-file and pursue this, it will either have to be returned to the web 10 days later, or Joel will have to file an injunction that I will contest. In the words of South Park’s Scientology Episode: “sue me”.

[Edit: Removed the following description of Paul D: “(who I fully understand is a long-time antagonist of Joel’s)” – see the comments]

Update: On his facebook page Joel has dismissed this as a conspiracy theory, and linked to a long page that discusses issues synching Outlook with Microsoft Exchange Servers. I infers he means that the glitch is responsible for the anomalies, though he merely posts the link. But I suspect he hasn’t read the link, since it nowhere describes any symptoms that match, nor that would require you to rewind the date and time to the exact time of a message and disconnect from the internet. And, as has been pointed out (though I’ve never received an email from him, so I can’t verify) he uses Gmail for sending (as indicated by the status bar in the image), not a Microsoft Exchange server.

I think there comes a point where a person has gone so far into lies and dishonesty that it is very unlikely they’ll come to their senses and come clean. It is a shame, I thought we were getting somewhere when he admitted things had gone too far the other day. But the wagons have circled, enough of his tribe made encouraging noises, so he feels safe keeping it up, I guess. Perhaps Neil will follow through on his intent to file a lawsuit against him, in which case I wonder if he’ll see continuing the lie into perjury as a sensible course. Besides that, I suspect any hope of resolving this with any honor is lost.


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Verbosity and Importance

If my writing were shorter, would it lose any illusion of gravitas?   I tend to write verbosely. I recognise that it is often a problem with my writing, here on the blog and professionally. I like to think that I prefer to read short, intense prose: why read ten thousand words if a thousand words will carry it?

The obvious reason for having longer text is to methodically make a point. You can say the same thing in different ways, allowing readers to understand the issue from several directions. You can qualify and support your statements, so that your claims are set in context. And you can communicate the importance of your insights to your readers, so they understand how hard you’ve thought about it, and journey through your thinking with you. That’s part of it, but I’m not sure many arguments really require that kind of break down. And I suspect we ignore most of the breakdown for those that do.

For example: when I was reading back through a whole ton of philosophical classics a few years ago, I was amazed to find that the philosophers had put forward many later objections to their works and defended it against them. When I was learning some philosophy, I acquired little historical gems such as “Bentham/Mill’s utilitarianism was later shown to be inadequate because it doesn’t give any mechanism of quantifying or calculating happiness and therefore utility.” But read Mill’s Utilitarianism, and arguing against that objection is a good chunk of the book. So what benefit did it do him to argue his thesis at length, if all that is remembered is the thesis itself? I had the same experience reading Ayer and Popper. Even the young Wittgenstein defends himself against criticisms he’d come to make later in life.

Most of us, I think, don’t confuse the length of a text for how important or deep its conclusions are. But being forced to read through an argument at length, we are perhaps more likely to absorb it.

Most academic monographs, of all kinds, are rather ponderous. My textbooks tend to take things slowly (I co-authored one of them, and was aghast when my co-author turned in a 3000 word explanation for a key concept – I reworked it into about 12,000 words!). This is so pronounced, that I rarely close-read any books any more. I find the thesis, jump from evidence point to evidence point, and I’m done.

But if I pay for a book, and it arrives, and it is 60 pages long, I confess I feel rather duped.

And when reading the 60 page book, I tend to read it as a 300 page book, and am through it and onto the next thing in an hour. I spend longer with 300 pages than with 60. The collective consciousness might only remember a paragraph’s worth of Nietzsche’s reasoning, but if he’d only written a paragraph, would he have been remembered at all?

So, selfishly, and mostly unconsciously, I keep writing. Finding new ways to express the same idea. Trying to keep you here for as long as I can in an effort to impinge on your thought processes in some way, if only through repetition and longevity.

Does it work? Do I demand more thought from you than I would if I wrote in tweets? Do you mind?


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DMCA, Censorship and the Watts/Godfrey Debacle

In my last post I discussed a recent dust-up in the ivory tower of bible blogging. I’ve said my bit about the morality of the situation, so I don’t want to flog a dead pony. But I do want to say something about DMCA.

Specifically this is a response to Joel Watt’s insistance that, because WordPress* acted to take down Neil’s post, then they must have seen that it violated copyright, so all us armchair lawyers arguing about whether it was a violation or not need to shut up because they employ proper legal experts, and they’ve shown their verdict by their action to take down the post.

That suggestion fundamentally misunderstands the DMCA and why it is widely viewed as a threat to free speech rights.


The Digital Millenium Copyright Act contains the US implementation of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s 1996 International Copyright Treaty. Although “DMCA” is informally used worldwide among free-speech and internet activists, DMCA is strictly only the US instantiation of the general idea, and even then we really mean part of the act. That key part is the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act (OCILLA), which sits in federal law in US Code Title 17, section 512.

The purpose of OCILLA is to limit the legal liability of hosting companies for copyright-violating content on their servers.

To take advantage of limited liability, a service provider (the web-company hosting the data) must follow a compatible protocol. They must provide a mechanism for copyright holders or their agents to notify them of a copyright violation [§512 c.3.A]. This is known as a Take Down request. They must respond by removing the allegedly violating content from public access ‘expeditiously’.

Now, if that were all, the person who published the material could sue the service provider for wrongly taking down their content (for loss of earnings, or loss of reputation, say). But OCILLA limits liability there too [§512 g.1], via a counter-notification, or what is called a Put Back request [§512 g.3]: the service provider can limit its liability for unfair take-downs, providing it has a mechanism for the alleged violator or their agent to request the content be Put Back.

In the event of a Put Back request, the web company notifies the party that made the Take Down request (i.e. the alleged copyright holder). So all parties are aware that the copyright claim is contested, but the content remains removed pending resolution.

The copyright holder then has 10 business days [§512 g.2.B] to file for a copyright violation injunction in an applicable jurisdiction (i.e. through the courts, not through the service provider). If no such suit is filed, then after 14 days, the content should be expeditiously returned to the web.

Who Decides?

Notice something important here; very important.

OCILLA was specifically created so the service provider does not have to determine whether copyright was violated. At no point in this process does the company have to determine whether the request is valid, whether copyright was actually violated, etc. When a service provider removes content, they are not agreeing that it is violating copyright, they are merely declining to be legally liable if it later turns out to be.

So WordPress removed Neil’s post not because it thought it was copyright violation (in fact, it is strictly neutral on the matter). But because it didn’t want to be liable in a later suit brought by Joel. And that’s the only sane response. If they hadn’t removed the content, and Joel brought suit, you can bet Joel’s lawyers would have named WordPress as co-defendants, with a correspondingly higher damages claim, and so on. Even if unfounded, defending this case would cost WordPress money.

The purpose of OCILLA is to say that the company has no liability to either side in the legal dispute as long as they take down the content straight away, regardless of whether it is violating or not.

Now, some companies might employ people to look at Take Down notices and weed out those that are obviously malicious, such as John Doe issuing a Takedown on EMI. But they aren’t going to employ expensive copyright lawyers to do that, they’re going to be the most basic first-line support staff. Any checks they do make are going to be highly conservative, and are offered as a service to their customers (particularly their advertisers). They have no legal need to adjudicate, and in fact good legal reasons not to.

So the idea that some legally savvy person in WordPress looked at Joel’s site, weighed up the Creative Commons license and his copyright footer, understood the way Joel intended them to interact, and decided that copyright had been infringed and that the claim should proceed to the next level, is nonsense. The law doesn’t work that way, because it was specifically designed not to.

Why it Matters for You

Which brings me to the real point beyond this particular spat. This provision in the DMCA is a superb tool for stifling debate and free speech. It is very likely that you will get content taken down if you issue a Take Down notice against a not-very-prominent individual. And this fact hasn’t escaped folks like the Church of Scientology, who use this tactic regularly to bring down material that is critical of them.

So DMCA is a very easy way to remove material you don’t like. There is no timely legal protection for the person who’s material is removed**. And the fact of a removal tells you nothing whatsoever about the legitimacy of the claim.

This is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation (see the Chilling Effects site) and other free-speech groups have been screaming loudly about DMCA for years. It is a bad law that inhibits genuine discussion and can easy be used to stifle debate and hassle content creators***.

Now, I suspect Joel wasn’t using DMCA that cynically. And he’s admitted the whole thing got out of hand and that the resulting take down was a step too far. But the idea that only genuine copyright infringements can be successfully taken down is simply false.

I think we should all be angry about OCILLA, and we should all feel the chilling effects.

* I’ve called the company WordPress, but Automattic is the parent company, so if you read Joel or Neil’s posts on, they use both names.

** Often content is never returned because (as Neil has) the content creator moves elsewhere; or it isn’t worth the hassle of issuing a Put Back request; or because the ‘copyright holder’ files a boilerplate lawsuit, which removes the 14-day time limit, and which the content creator can’t afford to contes. Chances are, content subject to a Take Down notice will not be seen again. And then (as Joel has in this case) the person issuing the Take Down notice can claim their take down was clearly justified.

*** One nasty part of OCILLA [§512 h] that isn’t in play in this case, is its provision to subpoena the identity and contact information of the alleged infringing party, before the claim has been considered. So if someone is being rude about you, anonymously, you can issue a take down notice, and ask for a subpoena for their identity, without having to prove your case. All you need to is swear that you only want their identity in order to bring this claim [§512 h.2.C] – an oath that would be very difficult to demonstrate you broke.

Edit: Added references to the US Code, Title 17, where you can read the actual provisions in situ.


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