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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Caps lock

I hate caps lock. I've never found it useful, and if my finger hits it when
I'm aiming for the shift key, my typing from then on is ALL CAPITALS and I
don't notice because I look at the keyboard when I'm typing. And then I have
to backspace it all out and retype it.

So I normally disable the CAPS LOCK key on any computer I use regularly. There's a few ways to do that, you don't need to lever it out with a crowbar.

The usual way is with xmodmap.

xmodmap -e "clear Lock"
or
xmodmap -e "remove lock = Caps_Lock"

Another way is with  setxkbmap

setxkbmap -option caps:none
or
setxkbmap -option ctrl:nocaps

But none of those worked on my lovely new Lenovo Thinkpad X1. So I Googled.

The first thng I found out is that the keyboard doesn't actually have a caps lock key. That, I heartily approve of. If you want to set caps lock, you hit the shift key twice, an led comes on, and you're in CAPS LOCK.

But I don't want to use the laptop's own keyboard. It's a bit minging. I want to plug in a decent keyboard, with the standard layout that I'm used to.

I remember once I was looking at a new car, and the layout of the controls was ... different. The salesman explained to me "You'll soon get used to it" to which my reply was "I guess you only ever drive one car, right?" Well, I use lots of computers, and my fingers know where everything is on the keyboard, and I do *NOT* want to be fumbling all the time because the layout is different.

So I want to put one of my beautiful old (vintage 1983) IBM "buckling spring" keyboards on it. But they have a PS/2 interface, so the first thing I had to do was use a converter for PS/2 to USB. No problem, I have a couple of those.

Then I wanted to disable CAPS LOCK and that where I ran into trouble. Eventually I found an answer. It's the gnome-tweak-tool, which is useful for all sorts of tweaks to Gnome (the Linux user interface I use). What you have to do is choose the "Keyboard" option, then "Additional layout options", then change Caps Lock key behavior from "Disabled" to "Caps Lock is disabled".

No, I don't have an explanation about why "Disabled" is different from "Caps Lock is disabled". It's just one of those mysterious things.


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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Service Unavailable

Service Unavailable

The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later.

This is what I saw when I tried to access my server. So I looked at the log.

Permission denied: AH01257: unable to connect to cgi daemon after multiple tries: /home/drsolly/pub/dbwebmin.cgi

Html files worked OK, it was only cgis. I spent about an hour faulot-finding and trying to diagnose, and I'm pretty sure it was the result of a Fedora upgrade. And I couldn't see how to fix it.

Eventually, I decided to re-download, recompile and reinstall Apache (my web server). And that fixed it.l

Oops brexit

One of the biggest problems about Brexit, was always going to be Ireland. Before I explain the problem, I need to explain a bit about the history.

It all started about a thousand years ago. But moving rapidly past all that (and there was a lot of history, which you can read up on if you want), In 1922, The Republic of Ireland (Eire) came into being. That was the whole of the island of Ireland, except six counties in the north, which we call "Ulster" or "Northern Ireland" which remained part of the UK.

The Irish weren't entirely happy about that, but a majority of Ulster folks wanted it that way, so that's how it went. the usual British understatement. It was absolutely beastly, a civil war.

We had a situation in the 1970s when the IRA, supported by donations in North America (Noraid), was bombing Belfast (the capital of Ulster) and also places in England, because they wanted Ulster to be part of Eire. Meanwhile, the majority of Ulster folks wanted to stay in the UK.

We call this "The troubles", with the usual British understatement. It was absolutely beastly, a civil war.

This went on for years and years, and pretty much everyone was heartily sick of it. In 1988, an agreement was made, called "The Good Friday agreement". This was a compromise between the UK, Eire, the IRA and the UDF (the protestant version of the IRA). By the way, this wasn't really about religion.

And everyone breathed a sigh of relief, coupled with crossed fingers and toes, in the hope that peace would hold. It might not have - there were people on both sides who really didn't like the compromise, but there were a *lot* of people who were fed up with living in a war zone.

And it did hold. From then until now, Ulster is at peace. You can go shopping in Belfast. You can drive from Belfast to Dublin without being stopped for passport, customs or anything else. It's great! We went to Cork (right at the south of Eire) for a holiday this summer, and had a great time. And one of the things we learned there, is that the EU has been really great for Eire.

So, now Brexit. The UK (including Ulster) leaves the EU, but Eire is still EU. Suddenly there's a land border between the UK and the EU. And when we leave the EU, there won't be free movement of people between the UK and the EU, or of goods, or of services, or of capital. So how do we handle the border?
The Eire folks are *very* keen that the border be totally open. We don't want a return to the Troubles. Customs posts would make prominent targets for bombing.

The Ulster folks want totally open borders with the rest of the UK, and you can see their point - they are part of the UK, and want to stay that way
But you can't have totally open borders between the UK and the EU. That's the whole point of leaving the EU. So we have mutually incompatible requirements.
Can we just ignore what Eire wants? No, because Eire is part of the EU, and they can veto any arrangement we make with the EU unless they're happy, and they won't be happy unless there's an ironclad agreement for open borders with Ulster.

Can we ignore what Ulster wants? That's what we usually do, but in this case, Theresa May messed up the recent election so badly that the government is dependent on the ten votes

by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who will not be satisfied with anything less than open borders between the UK and Ulster.

So how did we get ourselves into this pickle? It was always obvious (to some of us) that the Eire/Ulster border was going to be a problem, and we were looking forward to seeing what rabbit Theresa would produce from her hat.

Now it turns out there's no rabbit. And no hat.

Friday, 1 December 2017

New laptop, continued

The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon arrived. I started it up and it booted into Windows 10. I spent a few minutes fruitlessly trying to play with Cortana, then decided to install Linux without further ado.

First, I copied down the product key, so I could put Win 10 back on if I needed to (and I downloaded a copy from the Microsoft web site, and burned it onto a DVD). Then I powered off and on again ... and it went straight into Windows without offering me a chance to interrupt the boot up process. And there are no function keys; they are all soft keys. Um. I need to get in to the Bios to tell it to boot from the DVD.

I powered up the external DVD drive, and put a Fedora 27 64 bit net install CD in the drive. Then I did a bit of rooting around the internet. I found that what you do is power it off, then power it on and hold down the power button. Oh joy! Oh rapture unconfined - the boot menu came up, and it was easy for me to find where it lets you boot from an external USB DVD drive. So I did.

Fedora 27 installed like a piece of cake.

I don't like the touchpad (it's a very good touchpad, I just don't like them much) and the little stick thing in the middle of the keyboard is even worse, but it was happy to use my Microsoft optical mouse.

I'm not keen on laptop keyboards either, the geometry is all wrong compared with what I'm used to. It's good enough for a bit of work, but for any real amount of typing, I want a full sized keyboard, in the layout that my fingers expect. The Thinkpad will accept any USB keyboard, so that's not a problem.

Overall - I'm delighted. For £299 (more like £240 before VAT, £1300 when new)) I have a laptop that's pretty much as good as my usual desktop. 8gb memory, 240 gb of SSD storage, a 2560 by 1440 screen, although slightly cramped on the screen size at 14 inches.

I notice they are still some on sale but the price is now £399.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Samba sorrows

Today's hard-won tip, after struggling for a week.

I couldn't smb-mount one server on another. I've been upgrading all my servers to the latest Fedora 27, but I didn't upgrade one of them, because ... I'm chicken. If that server fails I'm up to my neck in deep water.

I tried rebooting it. I tried using nfs instead of Samba, but that gave me a readonly mount, and I couldn't work out why.

Eventually, I added ",vers=2.1" to the options, and that did the trick. It seems that Fedora 27 tries to use a version of the Samba protocols that Fedora 22 can't understand, and instead of saying "Oh, OK, I'll use an older protocol then" it just fails with the obscure message "mount error(5): Input/output error".

New screen

While I was looking for a new laptop, I also considered getting one with a fairly naff screen, and buying a separate monitor, and that led me to explore eBay's screen offerings.

The first thing I noticed, is that there's a lot of 3840 by 2160 monitors. I'm currently using a 27 inch 2560 by 1440 screen, and 3840 by 2160 would be nice. You can get them for £240 in 27 inch, but I'm thinking that the text would then be really small. And to get a monitor that's 40 inches, costs £560, which is a lot.

I rummaged some more, and found lots of 4k UHD monitors, and then a little light bulb went on in my head.

Back when I was running a Sinclair Spectrum (35 years ago), I plugged it into the TV; that was how they were supposed to be used. Even the original IBM PC (33 years ago) could be attached to a TV, with a terrible resolution (625 lines of PAL was roughly 320 by 240 pixels), and I don't know anyone who actually did that.  But modern TVs can be 4K UHD. Wait-a-minute ... WAIT A MINUTE!

So I rummaged around the internet some more, and I found that John Lewis sold a 4K UHD TV for £329, including delivery. It's a Toshiba television. It has Wifi, 3 USB ports and 4 HDMI ports, and it's the HDMI that I plan to use. If I have a video card that does HDMI 2.0 (and I have at least one such card) then I can get 3840 by 2160 pixels with a 60 Hz refresh rate. The screen is 43 inches, which is a *lot* bigger than my current 27 inches.

It weighs 14 kg with the stand.

Several years ago, I treated myself to a Sony W900 CRT monitor, which was 1920 by 1200 (and in those days, that was *wonderful*. It weighed 90 pounds, I could barely lift it, and it cost about £1000. I loved it to much that when it went dead because of a nearby lightning strike, I bought a replacement. But when the replacement eventually failed, I went entirely to LCD monitors.


New laptop

I was at daughter.1 this weekend, and I took with me my faithful old Dell, so I could do some stuff. I've had it for about 10 years, and it's been great for while I'm away from home, for accessing the internet, doing email, and doing small maintenance jobs.

But it only has 1gb of memory and a 600 mhz processor, so the version of Linux I have on it is Fedora 9, which is 10 years old. Linux is still working, the Dell still works, but it's a lot less useful than it used to be. It does the main thing I need, which is to run ssh, so I can log in to my servers.

The main problem is that I can't update the browser, which means that it doesn't have the modern encryption systems, which means there's web sites I can't access - including my own. Because SSL is now deprecated, and we're all supposed to use TLS. Plus, it's very slow (although I think that a lot of this is daughter.1's slow broadband internet connection, which seems to be around 1.7 mbit, although this was a Sunday, so maybe it's a contention issue).

I have another Dell, but that's not much better; it has 1.5 gb memory. The most recent Fedora it will take is version 16 (the current version is 27).

More recently, I bought a Lenovo thinkpad. That has 4gb of memory, and is running Fedora 27. But I want one laptop in Victoria, at daughter.1's place, and one for going away with. So I decided that I needed another laptop. Time to visit Ebay.

I looked for 8gb memory, because I think that's one of the main factors affecting performance. And I also wanted a high resolution screen. 1920 by 1600 at least, and even better would be nice.

I found this.  8gb memory, 2560x1440 screen, 2.9 ghz processor. So it should be nice and fast. It comes with Windows 10 Home or Pro, I chose Home because it's cheaper, and I'm planning to put Linux on it anyway. If you're interested, the seller has many more for sale.  It cost me £299, which is a great price, but there are a couple of negatives.

1) No DVD drive. I've bought an external one for £8.
2) No ethernet. But I'm expecting to only use Wifi.
3) The screen is 14 inches, not large.

So I thought about, maybe get an external screen? See next post.




Friday, 24 November 2017

Upgrading to https, part 1

The web is moving from http to https. The difference is that when you access the web via http, the server sends the page requested to your browser. When you access via https, the server encrypts the page, sends it to your browser, the browser decrypts it and you get to see it. Remember, there isn't a direct connection between the server and the browser, the info is forwarded via several other servers. And anyone on those other servers can see your info.

In the case of credit card info, that's a no-no. But in the case of most pages, it doesn't matter much. Except when it does - do you really want some third party monitoring your tweets? So https is becoming the default.

And the latest Chrome browser version, warns the user if the site they're accessing is using http and therefore not as secure as it could be. So now, there's an additional incentive to change to https. And that's what I'm aiming to do.

I use the apache web server because so do the majority of other web servers, plus I've been using it for 20 years. But before I could use https from my server, I had to upgrade it. Here's the plan:

1. Upgrade the server
2. Get certificates for each virtually hosted site that is hosted
3. Switch to https.

So first, to upgrade the server.

First, I needed to get the latest version of apache and any software that it depends on. To do that, I did a google search to download the tar.gz files, then untar them into the directories under a temp directory. And then:


openssl   ./config                                     make;make test;make install
apr        ./configure                                make;make test;make install
expat     ./configure                                make;make test;make install
apr-util  ./configure --with-apr=/usr/local/apr      make;make test;make install
yum install pcre-devel
pcre      ./configure                                make;make test;make install

Then apache. First, a carefully crafted configure. In particular, I enable ssl and rewrite. You'll see why rewrite later on - that's how I'll transparently convert http accesses into https.

./configure --prefix=/usr/local/apache2.4.29 --enable-ssl --with-ssl=/usr/local/ssl \
--enable-module=most --enable-rewrite --enable-alias --disable-status \
--disable-asis --disable-autoindex --disable-imap --with-pcre=/bin/pcre-config \
--disable-negotiation --disable-actions --disable-userdir \
--with-apr=/usr/local/apr --enable-ssl-staticlib-deps

And when that is done, "make" followed by "make install". That put the new version of apache into /usr/local/apache2.4.29. 

So then I edited httpd.conf to set it up the way my existing apache was, and copied over the include files for the virtual hosts.

Then I brought down the existing apache server with "systemctl stop httpd.service" (which takes a surprisingly long time, I think it's waiting for existing accesses to complete or something), and brought up the new server with "/usr/local/apache2.4.29/bin/apachectl start"

And then I accessed it from an outside server, and checked that it worked. Which it did! Hurrah.

Now to get the certificates.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

A terrible smell

There was a terrible smell in the Data Centre this morning. A smell I recognised - hydrogen sulphide. And that means - bad batteries in a UPS. I know it means that because I've had it many times before, and I know how to fix it.

I have five APC 3U 3000 KvA UPSes. They each use eight SLA (sealed lead acid) batteries, and when one (or more) of those batteries goes bad, you get the smell. And a red light on the front.

So we used the "nose test" to determine which one was bad, and the red light to confirm it. And those things are *heavy*, so we used the pump trolley (every Data Center should have one). We slid it onto the trolley, and trundled it to where there was space to work on it, then pumped the trolley up to a good working height..

I unscrewed the dozen or so bolts that hold the top plate on, and had a look. Sure enough, those batteries looked minging; bulging a bit, and distorted. So I levered them out (in extreme cases, I have a crowbar I use, but these came out with a bit of persuasion from a large screwdriver. I put the voltmeter on them, and they were severely duff. So they're going to the recycling center. Lead is useful.

I had a set of eight batteries that I'd taken out of another unit. I like to change these batteries every three years , but when these came out, they looked perfect, so I kept them. And yes - seven months after being removed from their old home, they were all still showing 12.5 volts.

So I removed the wiring harness from the old batteries, put it on the new (I always forget to make a diagram of how it's supposed to go, and I have to logic it out). I say "new" but they were dated August 2014, so they should be out of date by now. However, the voltmeter says OK, so I believe it.  Put the top cover back on, gave it power, and it's sitting now, charging up quietly to itself. I think it's looking good.

If those batteries don't work, I'll order a new set from Ebay, it's only £80, and that even includes a new wiring harness!

Job done.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Facebook group "Religion Discussion" rules and purpose

#Rules and #purpose.

The primary purpose of this group is to share ideas, discuss and debate issues related to the existence of a deity or deities, the social and psychological implications of religions and personal faiths, and the scientific implications regarding these topics.

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#Group_rules:

Please read these rules before you post in this group. New members are considered probationary for quality control purposes. These rules are elaborate so there won't be much room for confusion. Fear not, for this style of administration has been handed down the Armstrong line for generations.

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1. This is an English debate group. Please post/comment in English, and ONLY English. It's ok to post in another language when discussing its interpretation or meaning, however a direct debate or conversation in another language will not be accepted.

2. A meme or a link is not a debate point. If you post a meme or a link without a debate point, don't be surprised if it gets deleted. Accompany your memes or links with at least one sentence worth of argumentation at minimum. This rule may apply in the comments section as well. Members are expected to maintain polite discourse and adhere to basic principles of online debate

3. If you make a regular habit of drive-by preaching by not responding to and/or dancing around rebuttals, don't be surprised if you are removed.

4. No fighting - there is a difference between a debate and a fight. If you feel yourself getting angry, step away from the keyboard for a second. If a thread devolves into a huge fight, the involved comments, and possibly the whole thread, will be removed.

5. Overt insults are not allowed, especially when they are irrelevant to a debate point. If you are slinging insults at someone simply for holding a different opinion, action will be taken. Overt racism and sexism will result in administrative action at the discretion of the admin team.

6. Trolling, or posting solely with intent to upset or offend others, is not allowed. While some people might troll occasionally while also contributing, if your troll levels exceed your quality post levels to an extent that it brings down the quality of the group, action will be taken immediately.

7. Graphic images (pornography or violence) are not allowed. Images of a sexual nature, especially when not related to a serious debate topic, are not allowed. If you're posting an article or source for a debate point, and it happens to contain such images, provide a "NSFW" warning in the post with the link and remove the thumbnail.

8. Admin actions are not to be disputed publicly in the group. If you have an objection to the rules or to admin actions, please private message one of us admins and we will address your concerns.

9. Blocking an Admin or a Moderator is not allowed as this substantially decreases the efficiency with which this group can be run. However, if you message me (Yusuf J Ibrahim) and have valid reasons why you need to block an Admin/Mod (Admin/Mod X killed my sister, etc.), I might make exceptions.

10. Don't worry, admins are instructed to not take admin action in arguments that they are directly involved in. If you are fighting with an admin, another admin will observe things as a third party and take action if necessary.

11. Abusing the report feature on Facebook against others will result in a permanent ban from the group.

12. All posts should be related to the group topic. Off topic posts will result in a warning and the deletion of the post.

13. Spamming in this group is strictly prohibited. This includes advertising services, sites, pages, YouTube channels, other groups, etc. If you are caught spamming here, you will immediately be sent on a vacation.

14. DO NOT POST OR COMMENT IN ALL CAPS. DOING SO MIGHT GET YOU BANNED.

15. Do not delete or heavily edit a post once you've made it, or switch off commenting. Do not delete comments once other people have replied to the comments.

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In this group you will get three (3) warnings. Each specific offense will result in a warning. This means that if you break any individual rule three times, you will be subjected to suspension or removal pending admin decision. The first time you are removed will be a three (3) days suspension, after which you are free to apply for reentry. beyond that, it's admin discretion.
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Admins:
Yusuf J Ibrahim
Adam von Plentl - (Adam Plentl)
Daniel Van Koughnett
Matt Gorman
Zuhdi Ahwal
Brandon L. Williams
Alan Solomon
Trey Simmons

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Discussions with theists, index

Discussions with theists, part 1 - how to discuss with Muslims
Discussions with theists, part 2 - how to discuss with Christians
Discussions with theists, part 3 - how to discuss with Atheists

Discussions with theists, part 4 - how to discuss if you're a Muslim
Discussions with theists, part 5 - how to discuss if you're a Christian
Discussions with theists, part 6 - how to discuss if you're an Atheist

Have fun!

Discussions with theists, part 6

In this essay, which will perhaps be the last in the series (but as with Holy Books, you can never be sure that there isn't another one later), I'm going to cover how an atheist can converse with theists about atheism. Sometimes, I might post "I'm an atheist, you can ask me questions about atheism" and so I've seen many of the questions.

The origin of species

This is a popular question. It comes about because the theist has been taught a theory that is nothing like evolution, and wants to explain that it's rubbish. The theory they want to discuss is indeed rubbish and is only vaguely on nodding terms with evolution. I shall call this theory "not-evolution".

Here's now not-evolution works. One day, a monkey gave birth to a human. Or possibly what happened is that suddenly, all monkeys were giving birth to humans

Yes, it's absurd. Or a squirrel gave birth to a dog. Or something. I have no idea where they learn the theory of not-evolution; perhaps in their religious school?

So now you have a problem. If you try to explain the actual theory of evolution, then you're trying to put a several-hours tutorial, into a short time, which is probably impossible, and even if you do, you may encounter the phenomenon of "Invincible Ignorance" (I'll explain that later). Your best bet is to recommend a website that explains it, and then to recommend a good book. Because trying to explain evolution to someone starting off with not-evolution, is like trying to explain Special Relativity to a goldfish.

And a classic symptom of not-evolution is "If people came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys." You can reply "If Mormon came from Christianity, why are there still Christians", but I doubt if that will do any good.

Another classic symptom is "They haven't found the missing link". Actually, they have.

Or "There's no proof" Actually, there is.

Or "It's just a theory". No, it's a fact.

Invincible ignorance

This is actually a theological term. "Vincible ignorance" is ignorance that can be overcome with teaching. For example, if you didn't know that there are 5240 feet in a statute mile, then that is "Vincible ignorance" and easily dealt with.

"Invincible ignorance" is when, after you have been told that there are 5240 feet in a statute mile, and it has been demonstrated to you, then you continue to insist that it's only 5000. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but invincible ignorance really is a thing. I've met it a few times.

I know of no cure for it.

The origin of life

Many theists accept evolution (including the Pope). But then comes the question of, before there was life, there wasn't life. How did life originate, or to give that its fancy word "Abiogenesis".

My first explanation is "I'm not a biochemist or biologist, and I don't know, but I do know that there are several possibilities, and research is still proceeding. Would you like me to list some of the possibilities?" If they do, the Wikipedia again. I give them the first one, then ask if they want some of the other alternative possibilities.

The origin of the universe

Sometimes this starts off as "How did the planet Earth form" which is an easy one, but after that is answered, you get asked the origin of the universe, so it's easiest to go straight to that. And it's a doozy!

The Big Bang is actually not really relevant, because that begs the question of where the matter in the Big Bang came from.

Again, I start off with I'm not a cosmologist, and I don't know, but I do know that there are several possibilities, and research is still proceeding. Would you like me to list some of the possibilities?"

And then I list the following.

1) It was always there.
2) It came from nothing.
3) It was created by Leprechauns, who have now departed and gone elsewhere
4) It was created by a unicorn, but the unicorn was used up in the process and no longer exists.
5) It was created by a Fairy, and the Fairy is still here, but doesn't do anything now

And then the big discussion starts. I try to get them to deal with one at a time. The usual response to 1) is incredulity, but incredulity butters no parsnips. Why can't it have always been there? And sometimes I might remind them that this is exactly what they believe about their god. So they might say "But everything has a beginning" and I say "Well, maybe except the universe".

The usual response to 2) is also incredulity. How can you get something from nothing? There's a couple of responses. The first is "How do you know? Have you ever seen 'nothing'? I haven't. "Perhaps one of the properties of nothing is that it always spontaneously turns into "something". The second is, actually, quantum mechanics says exactly that. If you have empty space, then it will immediately contain something. And the third is to recommend a book by Lawrence Krauss "A universe from nothing" which shows just how a universe could come from nothing.

I've never gotten as far as 3), 4) or 5).


Fine tuning

This could be as simple as the "Goldilocks" ideal, or more universal. The Goldilocks idea is that planet Earth is in the ideal zone for life. How could that be just chance?

That's easy to deal with. Here we are. If Earth hadn't been suitable for life, we wouldn't be asking this question. Maybe there are zillions of other beings on their planets asking the same question. And clearly, on a planet that is completely inimical to life, there's no-one to ask that question. So we can deduce nothing from the fact that we live on a planet conducive to life.

More difficult is the same thing applied to the universe. Constants such as the ratio of the gravitational force to the electromagnetic force, and several dozen other such constants, are just right for life to happen. Surely the odds against that are astronomical?

There are two possible answers, but the main answer is "I'm not a cosmologist, I don't know." After that, there's the fact that we do not currently have the ultimate theory of physics (and maybe never will). It might seem strange that if you dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen, there is *exactly* twice as many hydrogen as oxygen atoms. Not 2.00001 or 1.99999, it's exactly 2.00000. The odds against that are astronomic, surely? No, not if you go to the underlying theory; each water molecule is made of one atom and two hydrogen atoms. So the ratio of 2:1 *has* to be exact.

Likewise, perhaps there's an underlying theory that we haven't yet understood that forces the constants of the universe to be what they are. We don't know.

The other possible answer is the multiverse. This relates to the "something from nothing" idea. Perhaps universes are spawned all the time, in vast numbers, out of nothing. Some immediately collapse, some don't have constants that allow star formation. But some are such that it's possible for stars to form, and planets, and life, and on those, it's possible to have beings that ask questions like this.


The parable of the diamond

A common statement by theists is "My religion comforts me. What harm is there?"

First of all, if you keep it to yourself and don't try to run my life by your religion, there would be no harm. But people use their sincerely held religious convictions, to try to run other people's lives. Gay marriage is a good example of this. Theists like to forbid other people marrying who they choose, with consenting partners. My view is that if a theist doesn't want to marry someone of the same sex, that's fine by me, but just as I would not tell any theist who they may or may not marry, so I would not want any theist to tell me. The harm is when theists try to pass laws that make their religion or religious views compulsory. The harm is when they require people who don't subscribe to their religion, to support it financially.

And for comfort, here's the parable of the diamond. A man says that in my back garden, there is a diamond the size of a hen's egg. I haven't actually tried to dig for it, but my belief in its existence comforts me.

And if you want a painkiller, there's a good case to be made that a bottle of whiskey does less damage than religion. I would recommend "God is not great - how religion poisons everything " by Christopher Hitchens.


Gish gallop

I've not seen this used, but the technique is to present "fact" after "fact" at a galloping speed. This is effective in a time-limited debate before an audience, because it isn't possible to answer every point. Or even remember them. The audience is left with an impression of, on one side a mountain of evidence, on the other side a few responses.

But in conversation, my response would be to wait until the gallop ends, then debate the first point, and not leave it until that point was finished (which it wouldn't be) then move on to the second, and so on.

Pascal's Wager

This says that since hell is so awful, it makes sense to believe in order to avoid that fate. The first answer is actually I don't have conscious control over my beliefs. My beliefs are swayed by evidence. So, for example, it would be great if I could fly, so why don't I stand on a hair and jump? Because even standing on my chair, I still believe that gravity will make me fall, and I cannot force myself to believe otherwise. What I could do, is pretend to believe. But will that fool your god?

The second answer is, you think your god's hell is bad? There are 42,000 other gods, and some of them have an even worse hell. So are you suggesting that the wise course is to believe in the god that has the worst hell?


The Kalam cosmological argument

This is an egregiously specious argument, and to be fair I've never had it used on me. It goes like this.

1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2) The universe began to exist;
Therefore:
3) The universe has a cause.

The problem is, you haven't demonstrated 1), you're just assuming it. And you're assuming it in the teeth of the evidence from quantum mechanics. It just isn't true.

And you haven't demonstrated 2). Maybe the universe was always there.

And even if you start off from 3 as your initial axiom (which you'd have to do because the Kalam doesn't prove it) then how do you know that cause is still in existence, that the cause is a god, and that the cause gives a monkey's about you and me?

Total non-starter. Maybe that's why I haven't heard it. Or maybe I haven't heard it because whenever anyone gets as far as 1) I dispute that assumption, so the argument can go no further.


The Ontological argument


This is another attempt to logic a god into existence. Shout -out to Anselm of Canterbury.

1) By definition, God is a being than which none greater can be imagined.
2) A being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that does not necessarily exist.
3) Thus, by definition, if God exists as an idea in the mind but does not necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than God.
4) But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
5) Thus, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality.
6) God exists in the mind as an idea.
7) Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality.

Well, I can't argue against 1), if it's a definition. But I disagree with 2). A being that doesn't exist is greater than one that does exist. Consider, for example, two beings. Sally, does exist and baked a cake. Penny doesn't exist, and nevertheless baked a cake. Since baking a cake when you don't exist is vastly more impressive than baking a cake when you do exist, Penny is greater than Sally.

And so 3 to 7 are floating on a proposition which isn't true. And finally, even if you assume that 7) is true, then how did you determine that it gives a monkey's about you and me?


The universe is God

I've heard this suggested. when you drill into it, it turns out that he's decided that the universe and god are synonyms. Fine; I also believe that the universe exists. Do you think that the universe can answer prayers, or cares about you?

There are similar notions; nature is God, the unified consciousness of humanity is God. I tend to smile, not and back quietly away.


What would make you believe?

I think this challenge is designed to short-cut the process of turning an atheist into a believer. My response is "Convincing evidence", which is a no-brainer. If it convinces me, then I'm convinced. Duh. But specifically, what? I don't know. But if your god is omniscient then he'll know what would convince me. And if he's omnipotent, he should be able to say "Hi" to me.

To believe, you must open your heart.

Here, let me summarise that for you. To believe, I must first of all, believe.

You can't prove God doesn't exist

There are a few good answers here. 

1) You're the one making an extraordinary claim. You're not just claiming that there's a pencil on your desk, which I'd believe without any more than your say-so. The burden of proof is on the person claiming something extraordinary, which means you.

2) Yes I can, and there are umpteen proofs that various gods don't exist. My favourite is the Quantum proof (see below).


Prayer

Look, if you genuinely believe that Matthew 21:22 (and several other places) that "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask in prayer.", then how about you just pray me into becoming a Christian. Let me know when you're done, and I'll let you know if it worked.


Quantum theology

Quantum Mechanics is a favourite of several woo-purveyors, such as Deepak Chopra, who seem to drag the word "quantum" into every third sentence. I think the idea is that QM is so difficult to understand, that it must be connected to other things that are difficult, like theology. Also, some people have gotten the idea that consciousness is one of the ingredients in QM (which it isn't).

So I was thinking about that one day, and I came up with a proof that no omniscient (or omnipotent, or omnipresent) god can exist, because of the double slit experiment. And I called it "Quantum Theology", but I'm sad to say that other people used that phrase before me.

Martyrs

Here's a good one. There were thousands of martyrs for Christianity. They wouldn't have let themselves be martyred unless they sincerely believed, would they?

Well, maybe they did sincerely believe, but that doesn't make it true. And what did the 9/11 suiciders believe in? It certainly wasn't Christianity.

Believer numbers

Two billion people believe in Jesus. That makes it true.

No it doesn't. five billion don't believe in him, so if you want to go by voting, Christianity isn't true (and the same argument works for other religions).




Friday, 17 November 2017

Discussions with theists, part 5

This essay is about, if you're a Christian, how do you discuss with another theist or an atheist? So I'll make a list of the main objections to Christianity, and try to suggest ways to answer them.

The resurrection of Christ

This is crucial to the whole religion - no resurrection, no Christianity. The only evidence we have for this is the Bible, and that's a bit self-contradictory.

What were the last words of Jesus? Three gospels give three different versions.

Who buried Jesus? Matthew says that it was Joseph of Arimathea. No, apparently it was the Jews and their rulers, all strangers to Jesus (Acts).


How many women came to the tomb Easter morning? Was it one, as told in John? Two (Matthew)? Three (Mark)? Or more (Luke)?


Who did the women see at the tomb? One person (Matthew and Mark) or two (Luke and John)?


Was the tomb already open when they got there? Matthew says no; the other three say yes.


So we have several different versions. If you put this up in a court of law, the differences between the witnesses would be enough to have it thrown out of court.

So how do you explain this? There's a few ways. The best is to explain that the differences between the witnesses, proves that there was no collusion, and therefore strengthens the story.

The Noah flood

There are so many ways that this can be ridiculed, I shan't bother listing them here. The best answer is to explain that the story is allegorical. Not everything in the bible is meant to be taken literally; consider, for example the story of the Prodigal Son. No-one is suggesting that the story actually happened, it's an explanatory device. Likewise the Flood.

If, however, you believe that the Noah flood was actually and literally true, I don't think I can help you; you'll quickly find yourself up the creek without a paddle.

But the problem with allowing that parts of the bible are allegorical, is that you run into the question of "Which parts, and who decides?" That's why many Christians prefer to stick with "It's all totally true"

The crimes of God

Atheists might bring up the three great crimes of God. The Noah Flood, where (apart from those in the Ark) God drowned every man, woman, child, baby, cow, sheep, goat, cat, dog etc etc. The second being Sodom and Gemorrah and the third being the Slaying of the Firstborn in Egypt.

Again, a good defence is that all three stories are allegorical. That's no good if you're a bible literalist, so try this.

The Noah flood was justified because all the men and women were evil. The children and babies would have become evil when they grew up, so it's justified in killing them too. The animals were tainted by the evil of the people (including the wild animals), except the few that made it to the ark, they weren't tainted, so they were rescued from the flood.

Plus, God made them, he is entitled to kill them.

Plus, God could take them all to heaven, although if they were all wicked, that's hard to swallow.

The same responses can apply to the other great die-offs.

Hell

Here the question is put as follows. "God loves you so much, he made Hell for you in case you don't love him back". The answer is simple. You don't have to go to hell, just love God.

Another question, "Is it moral to exact an infinite penalty for a finite crime?". The answer is, God is always moral.

Forgiveness

God will forgive all sins (except blasphemy, obviously). The objection is that the person sinned against isn't being consulted here. The answer to that is that the sin is only forgiven if the repentance is sincere, and sincere repentance includes restitution of damages.


Belief

A common question is "Why do you believe in God" (or Jesus).  Your best answer is if you've had a personal revelation (such as a Near Death Experience, or a vivid dream. Failing that, if you "Just know in my heart" that's pretty hard for them to answer. Citing the Bible as evidence will inevitably lead you to having to show why you think that the bible is true, and that's really difficult, especially if you believe that parts of it are metaphorical.

Old Testament

The Old Testament is a necessary part of the Bible, because Christianity needs to have Adam and Original Sin; without the OT, that isn't there. Also, the prophecies of the OT foretell the coming of Christ.

The problem with the OT, is all the laws. Like the ones on mixed fibres, on not eating pork or shellfish. And worst of all, the verses in Exodus that regulate slavery. And the thing about killing witches, and stoning people who work on Saturday, and stoning Homosexuals. So you have to say "That's the OT, and that was all replaced by a new covenant because of Jesus". But that really means that you can't rely on the Ten Commandments, because that's OT. And worse, Matthew 5:18 says "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Which means that the OT laws still apply.

So if the OT comes up, just change the subject.


Gay

Another difficult one. Most Christians are against homosexuality. If you're one of them, then be ready to defend your position.

You can't cite Leviticus, because that's OT and if you do, you have the problem of pork and shellfish. You can't cite "unnatural" because so is wearing clothes. I think you just have to go with "Because I don't like it", but then you have the problem of other people not liking ice cream, and they aren't telling you to stop eating it. No, I think your best bet is either to say "I'm cool with gay" or else change the subject.


The end times and the Second Coming

Every so often, perhaps a couple of times per year, someone announces that the End Times are imminent, and gives a date. Big mistake, because when that date comes and goes, they look foolish. If you're unlucky, then at the time of your conversation, such a date will be imminent. I would strongly advise you to disassociate yourself from that date, otherwise you too will look foolish shortly. The reason you might give is "They aren't real Christians", for example

But that leaves the problem of the Second Coming. Matthew 16: 27, 28, “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.". That was 2000 years ago, and he hasn't returned. Mark 13:26-30 and Luke 21:27-32 say the same thing.

This is a difficult one to defend. The early Christians thought that the end times were imminent and said so. I think you have to go with "It's allegorical".


The prophecies of the coming of Christ

In Isaiah, there are many fulfilled prophecies, but there's also unfulfilled prophecies in the OT, such as the lion lying down with the lamb, and beating swords into ploughshares and making war no more. Obviously, that hasn't happened, and the person you're talking to will cite that as evidence that the Messiah hasn't come yet.

The counter to this is to explain that this will all be put right on the Second Coming.


The virginity of Mary

The question might be put "How can a virgin bear a child?" Well, that's an easy one - it's a miracle.


Discussions with theists, part 4

Now I'd like to look at it from the other point of view - how do you defend your position against a debating partner?

First, I'll consider Islam; in subsequent posts, I'll cover Christianity and atheism.

Paedophilia

This is one of the commonest attacks on Islam that I see; it's based n the fact that Mohammed married Aisha when she was six and consummated the marriage at nine.

That would be difficult to defend - indeed, impossible in 2017. But in 600 AD, child marriage was quite acceptable, this being a way to make business or political alliances. And consummation was fairly common shortly after puberty. Still, it's hard to justify. Perhaps your best defence is to go over to the attack. You could cite the fact that more than half of US states do not have a minimum age for marriage, which I find pretty shocking. And a recent marriage in the USA was to a girl of eleven. That is a "tu quoque" defence, which isn't really a defence, but it might embarrass your debate partner enough for him to switch subjects.

Slavery

That is my favourite go-to subject for both Islam and Christianity because it's hard to defend. The problem is that either the Quran nor the Hadiths forbid slavery. And on the islamqa.info site, you'll find that "We reply emphatically and without shame that slavery is permitted in Islam". So - you can show verses in the Quran that recommend that you free a slave and you can find verses that tell you to be kind to slaves and treat them well. But that still leaves the huge hole - Islam doesn't forbid slavery.

You could point out that the same was true in the USA until 150 years ago, but the debate partner will then point out that it is now 2017, and slavery is no longer legal in the Western countries.

I have to confess, I've not really seen an answer to this question. Perhaps your best bet is to change the subject as soon as it's raised.

Terrorism

That's an easy one because surely it's obvious that not all terrorists are Muslim, and you can make a  list of such incidents (for example, the Oklahoma bombing) ready for use. Obvious subjects that might be brought up are ISIS and the 9/11 terrorists. They can be disposed of by explaining that they weren't actually Muslim, because Islam prohibits the taking of innocent lives. Indeed, that line can be taken concerning any terrorist, and even if they shout "Allahu Akhbar" and claim to be Muslim, they aren't.

A more extreme stance would be to claim that ISIS are a false-flag gambit. In this view, the people of ISIS are paid mercenaries funded by the CIA or some other foreign power, take your pick (I have heard this defence run a few times). Certainly you can claim with justification that the weapons that these terrorists use are all made in Western countries and sold on. OK, that's a bit feeble. Stick with the first paragraph above.

Attitude to women

People often bring up the attitude to women in Islam. So, first, there's the matter of dress, the Hijab, Nikab or Burka. Here, the defence is to insist that women make their own choice in how to dress, and that they are not required to do anything in Islam other than to dress modestly. So that's easy to deal with.

Next, the matter of polygamy. Again, this is a matter of consent. Surely adults should be allowed to marry one or several partners? Just as in the West, gay marriage is a thing because why should the religion get in the way of adult's consenting choices, so in Islam polygamy is a matter of consent; you can't take a second wife without the consent of the first, and so on.

Beating. This is a tricky one, because the Quran, 4:34 says that you can strike, or beat, your wife. Your best counter to this is to suggest that this is only a token, symbolic beating, and it mustn't hurt. For example, it would be with a small twig, such as is used as a toothbrush. Unfortunately, that isn't what the Quran says, so you might have a problem with that.

Inheritance. The Quran says that a son should inherit twice as much as a daughter. That's pretty much impossible to get round, and I think you have to go with "Yes, it's unequal. So what?" By the way, there's another problem in the inheritance issue, see below.

The Quran

The Quran is perfect, of course. I've already covered the slavery issue and the woman-beating issue. But there'a really dire situation. If a man dies leaving a wife, two daughters, and both parents, then his estate is divided up thus:

Wife: 1/8 = 3/24,
Daughters: 2/3 = 16/24,
Father: 1/6 = 4/24,
Mother: 1/6 = 4/24,

Total = 27/24=1.125

So either Allah cannot do arithmetic (unthinkable) or else the Quran got copied down wrong (unthinkable). Fortunately, very few people know about this issue, so it never comes up. But if it does, you could try explaining that first, the wife takes her 1/8, then what is left after that is divided as per 2/3, 1/6, 1/6 and hope that they change the subject.


Homosexuality

Yes, Islam bans homosexuality. So does Christianity and Judaism. No, Muslims don't throw gays off rooftops, only ISIS do that and they aren't Muslim (see above). There isn't gay marriage, but even the USA is having doubts about that, and lots of other countries don't allow it.


Thursday, 16 November 2017

Discussions with theists, part 3

So far, I've written about how to discuss Islam with Muslims, and Christianity with Christians. So how should you proceed if you're a theist and you want to discuss your religion with an atheist.

I have a few tips for you.

First, a definition. Atheists don't all believe that there is no god. here's what atheism is. You say there is a god, I say "I don't believe you". Notice, "I don't believe there's a god" is not the same as "I believe there is no god". I suggest you meditate on that until you've grasped it, because it could become crucial. See, if someone "doesn't believe" then no faith is needed. And, by the way, atheism isn't a religion, it's a lack of religion. If atheism is a religion, then not-playing-golf is a sport.

1. Don't threaten him with hell. That's like threatening an adult that the Tooth Fairy won't leave him sixpence. Also, Pascal's wager won't work (see part 2 of this series).

2. Don't use any personal revelations you've had. You might find them totally convincing, but they were revelations to you; the atheist didn't get that revelation. If you nearly died and saw Jesus, I can't tell you what yuo saw. But it was your vision, not mine.

3, Don't cite the power of prayer. The atheist will explain that praying to your god is as effective as praying to a china teapot. The answer will be "Yes", or "No", or "Wait". And because we're talking about real-world effects, it's possible to measure them, and that's been tried, and the result is "Prayer does nothing"

Worse than that; every time there's a flood, or a hurricane, or a mass shooting, politicians send "thoughts and prayers", and atheists see that as a way of doing nothing whatsoever while appearing to be doing something.

4. You can try "Someone must have created the creation". But the atheist will first object to your use of the word "Someone" and then the word "created" and then "creation", because you're assuming what you're trying to prove. You'll get more respect if you ask"What is the origin of the universe", but don't be surprised if you get the answer "I don't know. So what?" however, some atheists will have five possible answers, and say "I don't know which of these five is true, but your god-did-it is a sixth"

5. Ditto evolution. If you want to rubbish evolution, then the first thing you have to do is learn what it is. If you learned about evolution from your church or mosque, then it's almost certain that what you were taught was a completely ridiculous scheme that *no-one* believes. There's plenty of internet resources where you can learn what the theory really is, and then you'll be able to argue against it without looking a complete fool. Oh, and if you say "If humans come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys" don't be surprised when everyone laughs at you. Find out why that isn't a sensible question.

6. Where to your morals come from. That's a good question, and worth debating, but many atheists will throw slavery into your face. The Biblical morals allow slavery, and that's a definite no-no today. So how did you determine that slavery is evil? Not from the bible. So you have to use something in your head to decide which parts of the bible are moral and which are not - so what is the bible actually doing here?

7. The fine tuning argument. That's a good one, and many atheists won't know how to counter it. Unless they've read my blog and see the two ways that you can counter the fine tuning argument.

8. How did life originate? This one will stump pretty much every atheist; he'll have to say "I don't know". But if you say "God did it" then you have the problem of explaining how God originated. This one is, however, quite a good point to debate. The technical term for this is "Abiogenesis" and it's worth googling before you start, so you know what the atheist might try.

9. Don't lose your temper and start swearing at him or insulting him. For example "Atheists are sad, lonely, angry etc etc " When a Christian does that to me, I tell him "You're a Christian, aren't you. I can tell." Which isn't really an insult, if you think about it. Or maybe it is, your call.

10. Argument from complexity. For example, the human eye. How could something so complex have evolved (don't say happened by chance, because you did mug up on evolution like I said in point 5, didn't you?"). What you're looking for is something that is irreducibly complex. Which couldn't work if it's only partially there, the full thing has to be there. Half an eye doesn't work. BUT. Here's a tip - the eye isn't going to give you irreducible complexity. You'll need to find something else.

So, good luck. There's lots of atheists around, and many of them will be willing to discuss atheism with you.

Discussions with theists, part 2

In the previous essay, I talked about discussions with Muslims In this essay, I'm going to consider discussions with Christians.

It is much harder to have a discussion with a Christian than with a Muslim. Part of the reason for that is that there are three main Muslim branches, but there are *thousands* of Christian branches. And, of course, some of them claim that the others aren't real Christians, and vice versa. So, especially with Christians, you have to get some idea of what they believe.

Usually, they believe in the Old Testament God, and in *parts* of the OT. Always, they believe in Jesus, who is the son of God (and is also God, there's a three-in-one deal going that is a Mystery that Cannot Be Explained). Or rather, there are umpteen explanations of the Trinity, because they *have* to believe in one god, but then they have a divine Jesus, which makes two, so you have to somehow jam them together while keeping them separate (and for reasons I don't understand a third party has to be jammed in too) - and you thought that quantum mechanics is difficult. My take on this is that "If you think you understand the Trinity, then you don't understand the Trinity".

I've found that Christians willing to discuss are much less common that Muslims. I don't know why this is. But the subject to introduce to Christians is, again slavery.

Exodus 21:20, for example "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished." So you're allowed to beat your slave, but not to death.

"But that's the Old Testament". I hear this again and again. They want the OT, can't do without it, because they need the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, and they need the predictions of the Messiah. But a great deal of the OT is severely embarrassing to them, and they'd like to pretend it isn't there. Except the bit on homosexuality, which gets a free pass to be included.

So, in the New Testament, slavery isn't forbidden. Why not? Is it beyond God's capability to forbid slavery?

Ephesians 6:5-8 (NASB): Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh,

1 Timothy 6:1-2 (NASB):  All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against


Christians sometimes say "But they were servants, not slaves in the sense of being owned"
Matthew 18:25 "And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made."

You sell slaves. You can't sell servants.

So, the bible, OT and NT, supports slavery.

From this we can deduce that our morals, yours and mine, are superior to those of the Bible. So why would we turn to the bible for our moral compass? Better, the bible should be revised and brought up to date. But, of course, it can't be.

Forgiveness

This depends on what sort of Christian you're talking to. Many of them believe that "Jesus died for our sins" and "All sins can be forgiven by God". Except blasphemy, no forgiveness for that.

The problem with this is as follows. Alice decides to break Bob's arm. Then Alice asks Carol for forgive her for breaking Boob's arm, and Carol says, it you are truly repentant, then you are forgiven.

What is wrong with this, is that no-one asked Bob. In my view, this third party forgiveness is immoral.


Eucharist

This is not really an argument against Christianity at all, and it only works n Catholics, because the believe in Transubstantiation. The wafer is, according to the doctrine, transformed into the flesh of Jesus, and the wine into his blood. It isn't symbolic, it's actual, a miracle. So you're eating human flesh and drinking human blood. I'm not going to tell you that's wrong in any way, but I'm not a cannibal.

In the case of Protestants, the wafer is merely symbolic (consubstantiation or im[anation), so you're only  cannibal symbolically.


Prophecy

It can be quite important to some Christians, that Jesus was foretold in the OT (and that's another reason why they can't discard it. So there's a whole family tree that traces the ancestry from David downwards, and there's another family tree that traces it upwards (and the two are different) but I've never tried to tackle them on this. They rely heavily on Isaiah, for example, with a whole battery of prophecies, all of which could equally apply to Christopher Hitchens as Jesus, with the exception of the Virgin Birth". But most of these prophecies are so vague, like "Will be widely rejected".

The key prophecy for me is Isaiah 11:6-8. "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the adder, and the weaned child shall put forth its hand to the viper's den. "

And Isaiah 2:4 "And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

And none of that has happened.

CHristians say, Oh, that's the second coming". Well, that's the prophecy, it hasn't been fulfilled, your excuses don't butter any parsnips.


Personal revelation

This seems to be fairly common amongst Christians, much more so than Muslims. Some Christians have had a personal revelation, as in "Jesus appeared to me ...". I think it's impossible to shift that, so I don't even try, except to point out that no matter how convincing that might be to you, it butters no parsnips for me, because I didn't get that revelation. Near Death Experiences are a rich source of these.

Relationship with Jesus, as in "I have a personal relationship with Jesus". Sorry, I really don't know what that means, except that it's clearly some sort of interior dialogue, and likewise butters no parsnips for me.

An interesting suggestion that is sometimes made is "If you open your heart to jesus then he will make himself know to you" But I would summarise this as "If you believe in Jesus then you will believe in Jesus". Again, no parsnips.


Pascal's Wager

The idea here is that if you don't believe, and God exists, then you go to hell with an infinite torture for ever, an infinite penalty.

If you don't believe and God doesn't exist, no penalty. If you do believe, then no penalty whether God exists or not. Therefore the rational thing is to believe.

There are two huge holes in this. The first is that you don't actually get to choose whether you believe in things or not. Try standing on a chair and disbelieving in the force of gravity.

The second huge hole is that Pascal was assuming that there is only one God. But there are 42,000 gods, and if you choose the wrong one, you're doomed. Indeed, the punishment for believing in the wrong god is probably worse than for not believing at all. And the odds are 42,000 to 1 against that you'll pick the right one.

God's crimes

God is supposed to be all-benevolent. So first he creates the Garden of Eden, and there's one rule, "Don't eat the apple" (actually, we don't know what fruit it was, but never mind). So where does he put this tree? Does he put it outside the Garden, which anyone would obviously do? No. Duh.

So then he decides that nearly all men are evil, so he kills them all with a flood. As collateral damage, this also kills the children, the babies, the cows, the sheep, the cats, the dogs ... I call this God's first genocide.

The second genocide was, of course, Sodom and Gemorrah, with a couple of nice sub-plots, where Lot offers his daughters to be raped instead of the angels - like angels can't look after themselves? Then after they flee, Lot's wife gets turned to salt because she looked back. Then when they find somewhere to rest, Lot's daughters get Lot drunk and rape him while he's incapable. Nice.

So then the third genocide is in Egypt - the slaying of the Firstborn. That would have produced a mountain of dead children and babies. And it wasn't even necessary; Pharaoh had already decided to let the Israelites go, but that wasn't satisfactory to God, so "he hardened Pharaohs heart"  and thereby was able to commit his third genocide.

Skip forward a couple of thousand years. It's 1943, and six million jews are being murdered, hence the expression "Did you sleep well? Yes, like God during the Holocaust".

And finally, there's Hell. The deal there is "I love you, you'd better love me back or I'll torture you for ever."


Christian counterarguments

These include all the same ones that Muslims make. I'll be covering these in my third essay in this series.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Discussions with theists, part 1

I often have discussions with theists; it's fun, sharpens my debating skills, and could help lead some theists out of religion.

You can divide theists up into three groups; Christians, Muslims and everyone else. Most of the people I talk to are Muslims, because they seem to be most willing to talk; Christians come second, and I don't talk to the others because A) there are very few to bump into and B) I don't know enough about their religion to be able to discuss it.

In this essay, I shall consider Muslims, and how to discuss their religion.

There are three kinds of Muslim, and they are so opposed to each other that there is constant war and mosque explosions. These are Sunni, Shia and Quranic. Muslims often claim that Muslims are united in one Umma, but when you get down to it, they say that the other two aren't actually Muslims. So the Umma is united, just a lot smaller than they initially claim.

What all of these have in common, is a belief in Allah (who approximately corresponds to the Jewish god Jehovah), in Mohammed who was his messenger (or prophet), in the Quran, which is the  Holy Book. In addition, the Sunnis and the Shias have the Hadith, which are sayings of the prophet and his companions, written down somewhat later. There are strong Hadith and weak Hadith; this means Hadith that you can rely on, and Hadith that are less reliable. Islamic scholars decide which are which. The Hadith that the Sunnis regard as good, are different from the ones that the Shias regard as good. Quranic muslims don't accept the Hadith at all.

The main beef that the Shias have with the Sunnis (and vice versa) concerns some political stuff and assassinations that happened 1400 years ago after the death of Muhammed, and which I've never been interested in enough to study up on, because I'm much more interested in the religious differences today.

Allah, the Quran and Mohammed are all perfect. And that exposes an interesting debate surface. Because a perfect book cannot have imperfections. So can we find any imperfections?

Of course we can. But I feel it's better to examine the important ones, than the less important. So I'll start with what I regard as the most important.

I start off with "Would you like to discuss the Quran?" If they don't, then that's that. But usually, Muslims are very eager to talk about their religion, because for some reason, they think that all they have to do is explain to an atheist about the perfection of islam, and he'll convert. By the way, they use the word "revert" because they believe that everyone is born muslim, but their parents lead them astray.

The next question is "Do you think that slavery is evil and should be forbidden".

This is often followed by considerable wriggling. I ignore the wriggling and attempts to change the subject, and requests to watch a three hour long video, and just keep repeating the question, with slight variations.

Digression. If you make the exact same post three times, even if the post is :-), then Facebook thinks it's spam. One character change avoids this.

So eventually, the question is answered, and everyone I've ever discussed this with, agrees that slavery is evil and should be forbidden.

At this point, they might point out that there is no slavery today. Well, there is. For example, 2.1 million in Pakistan.   Here's a clickable world map.  There is also sometimes an attempt to redefine slavery to include people working for a wage. The key issue is, if someone can leave their job and work elsewhere without asking permission, then it isn't slavery.

So the next question is "Does the quran forbid slavery?" And then you wait while he checks his Quran, and if he says it does, you ask for the Sura and verse, and that's where your own copy of the Quran is crucial. Because he will come back with various verses. None of them forbid slavery. Sometimes he will come back with a verse that is about something else entirely, more often with something vaguely relevant, nbut which doesn't forbid slavery,

There are some that tell you that if you murder someone, then to make amends you should feed ten hungry people, clothe ten needy people, or free one slave.  There's one about a battle, in which the army is advised to free a slave to make progress. There are verses that tell you to free a slave, there are verses that say that you gain merit by freeing slaves, but there isn't anything that forbids slavery.

Then, after he's failed to find anything forbidding slavery, he might point out that in the 6th century, slavery was common (true) and it just wasn't practical to forbid slavery. But murder and robbery were also common, and the Quran forbids those. And also, is he saying that there is a limit to the power of Allah? One  little sentence in the Quran, "I forbid you to keep slaves" is all it would have taken.

And if you go to islamqa.info and visit the page on slavery, then you'll notice a lot of stuff about Christianity, which is irrelevant because we're not defending Christianity, and "We reply emphatically and without shame that slavery is permitted in Islam,"

So now we have it. Our discussion partner agrees that slavery is evil and should be forbidden. The Quran does not forbid slavery. Therefore the morality of our discussion partner, is better than that of the Quran.

This is a rather stunning discovery. They never knew this before. And (although I dont say this) it demonstrates that the Quran is imperfect.

At that point, I leave the discussion. You will *never* get anyone to say "You're right, I'm an atheist from this day forth". It takes a long time for someone to find their way out of religion, but you have opened up a crack in the surface. They'll have to take the next steps themselves. Or maybe they won't.

A few other points

Muslims sometimes claim that in Islam, women are treated equally. They aren't. Sura 4:34 is the verse that allows men to beat their wives. Sometimes the discussion partner claims that this beating is symbolic, but this is not what the Quran says, and if the Quran is perfect, then you cannot change what it says. Also, in the inheritance laws, a son inherits twice as much as a daughter, Sura 4:11. Muslims claim that their inheritance law is deeply complex, but it isn't. If you can think clearly, and maybe do a bit of algebra (and isn't that ironic) the inheritance laws are simple. The only complexity comes when the division of the inheritance specified by the Quran among parents, wives, sons and daughters adds up to more than 100% (actually to 112.5%), which means that either Allah can't do arithmetic, or someone wrote the rules down wrong.

Aisha

Aisha was one of Mohammed's wives. They were married when she was six, the marriage consummated at nine. A lot of people like to raise this issue, but I've never felt that it was worth discussing. At that time, in Western Europe, marriages were being made at a similarly early age. And, horrifyingly, in the USA today half the states have no minimum age for marriage, and there are cases of marriage at age 11 and 12. So it's not a topic I feel gives me solid ground.

Mohammed in the Old Testament 

This one is rather fun. Sometimes Muslims claim that the coming of Mohammed was foretold in the Old Testament, and they quote a verse from the "Song of Solomon".
 It's a love song; romantic poetry. And it says "His mouth is most sweet, yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!€"

The hebrew word that they're thinking of is "ma-kha-madeem" where "kha" is the hard "ch" as in "loch". And the meaning of that is "altogether lovely". If the author of the bible had wanted to use the word "Mohammed" then he could have. But he didn't.


So it sounds a bit like "mohammed", but only a bit. If you search the bible, you'd also find a word that sounds like "Zakir", but that doesn't mean that the bible predicted the existence of Dr Zakir.


Oh, and while we're on the subkect of Hebrew. Male nouns are pluralise by adding "im" and female nouns by adding "ot". I've heard both Muslims and Christians claim that "im" is a mark of deep respect. No. "Yom" is a day, "yomim" is days. I spent many boring hours in Cheder learning stuff like that.


The origin of the universe and the origin of life

I plan to discuss this in a future essay on atheism how to discuss it.

Science

Sometimes Muslims claim that there is information in the Quran that was simply unknown at the time, and therefore must have been divinely inspired. A common example of this is that the world is round.

But actually Eratostheses, around 200 BC, not only knew that the world was round, he actually measured the circumference, and made a rather good measurement of it.

Likewise, any other scientific information in the Quran wa eiher well known at the time, or else is the result of "data mining", whereby a poetic description is stretched and distorted and claimed to be modern science. It's usually easy to dismiss those.

Language

Most discussions on the internet are in English, so it's important to remember that your discussion partner might well not have English as their first language. So I *never* correct their spelling or grammar, and I make every effort to understand what they said. If, after trying, I really cannot understand, then I say "Could you rephrase your comment, I didn't understand you" which is kind of putting the blame on me. Good manners.

Computers and smartphones


I'm using a computer. I think that many other people are using a smartphone or tablet. That means that I can type as fast as I can talk; they usually can't (plus they're talking in what isn't their first language). I have Google and I know how to use it. I also have Google Translate, which means that I can read and write Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and about 100 other languages. I can cut-and-paste from other internet pages, they might not be able to. So I have all sorts of advantages. Well, hard luck.

Insults

I *never* hurl insults, there's no point. But if someone tries to insult me, I explain to them that it is really, really difficult to insult me, which is true. The reason for that is that if someone starts throwing insults, I immediately lose any respect for them, and I obviously can't be insulted by someone I don't respect. Throwing insults means you've run out of rations discussion points.




 


Monday, 13 November 2017

Attempted fraud

Today my postbox contained an application, in my name, for a NatWest platinum account. The form was already filled in, it just needed my signature. It had my correct name (not really a secret) my correct address (available in a few places publicly, such a the Electoral Register), my correct date of birth (not a big secret).

It gave a mobile number that isn't mine, an email address that isn't mine. It listed my occupation as medical (it isn't) and a made-up salary etc. It's an attempt at fraud; all they needed to do was intercept that application (perhaps by fishing it out of my letterbox?). writing something that looks like my name as a "signature" and they would have their account, all ready to commit frauds.

So I called NatWest. And after being passed around a couple of times, I was able to talk to someone who said they'd pass the case on to their "identity theft" department. But the impression I got from him was that the bank felt that it was my job to defend myself from identity theft (how? I reminded then of the recent Equifax loss of 140 million personal details) and not theirs.

So I explained that I feel that it is the bank's responsibility to ensure that the people they make loans to actually exist and have requested those loans.

We don't have a bank account with Natwest, whatsoever. So.

The upshot is, we're going to upgrade our letterbox so that it becomes one-way. The postman or any delivery service will be able to put things in, but you won't be able to fish things out unless you have the private key. It was already supposed to be like that, but ladysolly used a coat hanger to fish stuff out.

A bit like RSA public/private key encryption, really.

Evolution

I can't remember when I found out about evolution it was several decades ago, but when I did, it was "Yes, obviously that's how it happened".

But there's are lots of people, mostly religious, who have a very different understanding of evolution. What they call "evolution" isn't anything like evolution. They think that evolution is "One day, a cat gave birth to a rabbit". And they say "That's nonsense". And indeed it is. So here's what evolution is.

Consider rabbits.

The rabbits breed, have baby rabbits

And there are slight differences in the babies. Some have slightly longer hair, some can run slightly faster, and so on.

Some have better vision, some have worse.

The baby rabbits that can run faster, are more likely to survive; the slower ones are more likely to get eaten by wolves.

So over the generations, the rabbits get better at running.

Meanwhile, in another continent, there are other rabbits. And their problem is eagles.

Running fast won't help them unless the see the eagles fro a long distance.

So in this population of rabbits, the ones with better eyes survive

And in this population, the ones that are better at seeing upwards have an advantage.

So one population of rabbits gets stronger back legs that lets them run faster.The other population of
rabbits get better at seeing, because that lets them avoid eagles.

So after a million years, you now have two very different populations of rabbits

One has long, strong legs. The other has weak legs, but very good eyes, and can swivel their heads to look upwards.

And one day, someone gets a male from one population, and a female from the other, and discovers that they are
so different that they can no longer interbreed.

So we now have two species, different from each other. Leg-rabbits and eye-rabbits.

And that's how evolution works.

Here's a book I'd recommend.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Virtran

In 1991, I realised that Findvirus, my antivirus scanner, had gotten really slow. When I first wrote it in 1989, it looked for three file viruses, Vienna, Cascade and Jerusalem. By the time it was scanning for several dozen, it was really slow, so I decided to rewrite it.

My first decision was to make it a single point scanner. If you've analysed the virus, then you know *exactly* where in the file the virus would be if it's there at all. My second decision was to include repair, so that if it found a file with a virus, it would (optionally) reverse the infection process and put the file back the way it was before the virus came along. My third big decision was to make it upgradable, so that I could add detection and repair for viruses that came along in future. How many would that be? I thought about it, and realised that I couldn't put an upper limit on it.

To make it upgradable, I decided that as each virus appeared, I didn't want to change the scanning engine. So I would have a separate file. Other antivirus products called this file "signatures", but what I wanted wasn't just the sequence of bytes to look for, but where in the file to look for it, how to do a checksum of the virus so I'd have an *exact* identification of the virus (by that time we'd begun to see families of viruses) and then describing how to do a repair. I called that a driver file; each virus would have its own driver, and it wouldn't matter which order they appeared in. And becuase it worked like that, I'd be able to have umpteen people working on drivers, although for a long ling time there was only one. Me.

So what I designed was an interpreted language. There was a verb for "follow the jump", a verb for "move xx bytes along the file", and so on. There were two kind of verb; single-byte verbs like "follow the jump", and multibyte verbs like "move xx bytes along the file". A byte in the range 0-127 would be a single-byte verb, 128-255 would be multibyte. How many bytes in a multibyte verb? The second byte would tell you that, and would be followed by the xx number, or whatever other info wa needed. Altogether thee was, going on my memory, a hundred or so verbs. And there was a compiler which boiled down an English-like description file, into a byte sequence, which I thoughtfully called "compile".

One of the beauties of this, was that to port the scanner from one system to another, all you had to do was reimplement the engine, the same driver file would work on all engines. I did exactly that, porting the scanner frmo Dos to OS/2. Iolo Davidson also did a port, writing a TSR (memory resident) version that we called "Virus Guard". Later we ported to Windows (and to a VXD, the Windows equivalent to a TSR), to Novell Netware 2 and Netware 3. Linux wasn't a big deal in those days.

And it was an extensible system. If I needed a new verb, then I'd just use the first unused number, and define that for the new verb, implement it in the engine, add to the compiler, and away we go. When the polymorphic viruses started to get more important, this was very useful, because I could add the verb for the "Generic decryption engine", a powerful tool that was able to decrypt any polymorphic virus, making scanning the result really easy.


That was 1991. Now it's 2017. We let the management buy the company, after a couple of years they floated it, then it got sold to Mcafee, the Mcafee got sold to Intel, now Intel have sold that on to another company, and yesterday, I invited Igor Muttik, a chap I hired for the virus lab from the Low Temperature Physics lab in Moscow, and we had coffee and talked about people, places and viruses. And he told me that 26 years later, they are still using Virtran (with the extensions that I had allowed room for).

I was pleased. Although not as please as I was when we god the Queen's Award for Technology for it!



Thursday, 9 November 2017

lIghttpd

I updated more of my servers to Fedora version 26, and s a result, lighttpd stopped working.

lighttpd is a lightweight web server. For most purposes, I use Apache, which is used by half the internet, but when I want a small, simple web server, I use lighttpd.

I have a process that runs on a monitoring server, that checks the health of each of my servers, accessing it via port 80, the web. It accesses a small file that is created on each server by a self-checking program, which reports any problems. Obviously, for this to work, I need a web server running on each server, and that's why I use lighttpd

After the upgrade to Fedora 26, lighttpd loaded and ran, but didn't respond to accesses on port 80, and I don't know why. But instead of trying to fault-find with something that worked before and doesn't work after the upgrade, I just changed those servers to use Apache.

Job done.

On logic

I was recently asked - where does logic come from? And as an example, he asked about the LNC. Fortunately, I knew what that was.

The LNC is the Law of Non-Contradiction. It says that something cannot be true and false at the same time. And I was immediately reminded, as one is, of Schroedinger's cat. Most people know about this so I won't explain it, follow the link if you need to. Schroedinger's cat is both alive and dead, it's in a superposition of states until the cat is observed. Alive and not alive. You can see why the LNC made me think of the cat.

Now consider geometry and the proposition that parallel lines never meet. That's true for plane (Euclidean) geometry, but it isn't true for spherical geometry. So which geometry is "right"? Both of them; you use the geometry that's most useful in solving the problem that you're facing. So if you want to lay out your garden, you'd use plane geometry, because it's simpler than spherical. But if you want to determine the best route from London to Chicago, you'll use spherical geometry.

I think it's the same with logic. There could be hundreds of different logics; some include the LNC and some don't. We use the generally accepted laws of logic because they lead to the ability to solve the most common problems. For example, in our world, a cat cannot be both alive and not alive. Our ordinary experience means that the LNC is more useful than a logical system without it.

But perhaps when we think about Quantum Mechanics, it would be more useful to adopt a set of logical laws that do not include the LNC. And then the cat can be both alive and not alive, and there's no paradox.


Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Opioids

Opioids are drugs like heroin (which is derived from the opium poppy, hence the name). But more recently, there's been a surge in synthetic opioids, which means opioids that aren't derived from the poppy. For example, hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl. And one nice thing about those, is that you don't have to pay Afghan farmers, or drug smugglers. It's all synthesised chemically, and perfectly legal.

Here's why it's suddenly become of considerable interest.


See that blue line shooting up in the last few years? That's the synthetic opioids. The steepness of that line, is a big worry. Look at it, and think what it'll look like if that line continues on up. And this is a particularly US problem. For every one million Americans, almost 50,000 doses of opioids are taken every day. That's four times the rate in the UK. In the UK in 2016, drugs killed 3744 people, which is a lot, but that is 60 deaths per million, whereas the US figure is 200 deaths per million. 

And it's bad. More Americans die each day from drug overdoses, than car crashes.

Sometimes, opioids are a good idea - for example, cancer patients take them for pain relief. But it's clear that too many are being prescribed. There's a problem. How can it be fixed?

Trump has suggested “If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem. If they do start, it’s awfully tough to get off. So if we can keep them from going on and maybe by talking to youth and telling them: No good, really bad for you in every way. But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem.” Well, yes. But who believes that telling kids "Don't take drugs" will help? It didn't work in the 80s, it won't work now. Also, the problem here, isn't just kids.

Here's one problem - the American healthcare system. Suppose you have bad back pain (I know what that feels like). And you go to your doctor. And he decides that you have a muscle spasm. Which is what I get sometimes. The best treatment is physical therapy, but your insurance won't pay for that. But your insurance will pay for pills, so you get pills. Painkiller pills. Which doesn't address the problem, of course, just the symptom.

My solution to the bad back pain that I get after walking some miles, is to sleep flat on my back, and after a couple of days, the pain is gone. I'm not saying that would work for everyone - consult your doctor.

In the US, prescription drugs can be advertised on TV, to the tune of $6.4 billion in 2016. So you can go to your doctor and say "I want what I saw on TV", and you can be sure that the pharmaceutical companies don't spend $6.4 billion unless they believe it gives results.

In 2015, the American Medical Association requested an end to the advertising of prescription drugs. But it didn't happen.

Are opioids addictive? Well, duh. No-one doubts that heroin is addictive. And so are the synthetics, except the synthetics are new, profitable, and it's very much in the interests of the pharma companies to publish research that throws doubt on that.

So what is to be done?

In the case of the USA, I don't know. Their healthcare system is so buggered up, I can't see any way out for them. Plus, no-one in the USA seems to care about this issue, except the folks who die, of course, and they won't be making much noise. And it's in the interests of the pharma companies, the health insurance companies and the doctors, to fob off a person in pain with pills, instead of a more expensive treatment.

But in the case of the UK, and other countries that have a national healthcare system, we should use the situation in the USA as a dire warning about what could happen here unless we ensure that opioids are prescribed only when absolutely needed, and not to anyone who comes to the doctor with a bad knee.