Can you do the Google Doodle.

June 23, 2012

I’m having immense fun with today’s Google doodle. As a programmer who learned Z80 without an assembler so had to write out the opcodes long hand and convert in to hex, and calculate the offsets by hand (up hill, in the snow both ways dagnamit) , I absolutely love the type of complexity that can arise out of a relatively simple instruction set. And when it comes to the puzzles set by the Google doodle, they couldn’t be simpler.

If you don’t want to know how to play the Google doodle, or want to work it out on your own *DO NOT READ THIS POST*.

Still with me? Then we shall begin. We’ll start with a (relatively) straightforward puzzle, but one that contains everything you need to know about solving the puzzles:


This is a puzzle at the start. I haven’t changed anything. The goal is to make the large number on the tape (the 010110) match the smaller number in the top-right corner (the 00011). You do this by programming the Google Turing Machine. And like many interesting puzzles, the rules are simple, the problems are challenging.

The Rules.

When you hit the big green GO button, the puzzle begins by carrying out the instructions from left-to-right starting at the circle to the right of the GO button. It will look at each circle it comes to, perform the task written on the circle and – unless the instruction says otherwise – move one circle to the right. It carries on in this fashion until it moves off the right hand side.

The Google puzzle can carry out precisely four types of instructions:

  1. If there is only a number in the circle, the number at the current position is set to that number.
  2. If there is only an arrow in the circle, the current position is moved to the left or the right depending on the arrow.
  3. If there is a number in a square with an arrow, the puzzle carries on in the direction of the arrow if and only if the number at  the current position is the number in the square (or blank if the square is blank). We’ll call this a condition.
  4. If the circle has a curved arrow (like the yellow circle in the example) then the puzzle carries on by moving back the number of circles in the middle. In the starting example this is two. We’ll call this a branch

Believe it or not, with only these few rules, these puzzles represent everything you need to write any program. It is what is known as a Turing machine.

How to solve

The only thing you can change when solving the puzzles are the circles highlighted in yellow. If it’s not highlighted in yellow, you can’t change it. So in the example above we can only change the branch. If we follow through the logic we can trace out how the program will run:

  • START: Condition: go down if the current value is 1. The current value (the number under the rectangle in the center) is 0. So nothing happens, we continue to the right
  • Condition: Go down if the current value is 1. The current value is still 0, so we continue to the right
  • Condition: Go down if the current value is 1. Once again, it’s still 0 so we continue to the right.
  • Arrow: Move the current position to the left. Something’s changed! This gives us this position:


The current position has moved to the left. But notice also: the value at the current position has changed! So we carry on:

  • Branch: Move back two circles. Moving back two circles from the branch takes us back to the third
  • Condition: Move down if the current value is 1. Well, what do you know! The current value is 1! So we move down to:
  • Arrow: Move the current position to the right, and
  • Arrow: Move the current position to the right.

With a blank circle meaning “do nothing”, the program now just slides off the end and nothing else happens. The numbers don’t match, so the problems not solved.

So how do we go about solving it? Bear in mind that what we want to do is change the number on the tape to match the number in the top corner. In order to change the number on the tape we need to execute a number instruction to make a number change. As it turns out, there’s only one of these, right underneath the starting instruction – our first condition. We also know that current value will be 1 by the time we reach the branch (we know this, because we’ve done a test run, but you can also work it out quite quickly, once you know the rules). We also know that we can change the number of circles the branch moves backwards! What if we do this:


Notice how the branch now takes us straight back to the beginning? Well, this changes everything. Now when we branch we go right back to the first

  • Condtion: Move down if the current value is 1. Well, when it reaches that branch this time around, the current value will be 1, so we move down! And a completely different set of instructions is executed:
  • Number: Number is zero, so we change the current value to 0. This gives us:

ImageLooks to me like we’ve solved the problem! Execution continues along the bottom row, but this only moves the current position, it doesn’t change the tape. Problem solved!

By using these basic principles it is possible to create arbitrarily complex instructions. Indeed, one of the last puzzles (which I can’t now convince Google to serve up) involves shifting the number 1 across in a beautifully crafted loop. This kind of system is what Alan Turing – most famous for his work in cracking the Enigma code – is most well known for in computing circles; it even has a name that you’ve no doubt heard by now: the Universal Turing Machine. It’s a concept that is so essential to modern computer programming and systems design that without it, you wouldn’t be able to read this, because there would almost certainly be no general purpose computers.

Incidentally, if you complete all the puzzles, there’s an extra treat in store, as Google let it go off an execute a somewhat more complicated program. I’m not certain, but I think it’s counting :)

Image(All images taken from the Turing Google Doodle.)

Blessed are those who are persecuted.

April 14, 2012

Once upon a time, about 2,000 years ago as the story is often told, Jesus grew tired of the crowds, went up a hill, and gave a little speech.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

He said

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Warming to his theme, he continued:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be fulfilled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

It’s a fun little talk that someone called Mathew, or so the story goes, thought to write it down and put it in a book. That little book got later incorporated in to a little-read book called the Bible.

Now imagine, if you will, that you’re a man who believes everything in this Bible. Imagine that you’re a man who, for over 10 years lived in a palace and effectively governed a church of similar minded people who also believed everything in this Bible (although no-one asks how someone smuggled a dictaphone to the top of a mountain in the mid-Iron Age). Imagine too,  that you’re titled and landed, you sit by right in the House of Lords and get a say in all legislation passed in the country solely because of the book you believe in. You’re one of the single most privileged people in the country. Imagine you’re that person, and you sit up in bed one day and read this list again. You might imagine that you’d be in for a bit of a shock.

You could hardly describe your position as meek or merciful, you’ve resided over a group of people famous for bickering over the meaning of words in the book you all claim to believe in, so you’re not much of a peacemaker. But you desperately want to be blessed! What do you do?

Well, if you’re Lord Carey, you pretend you’re being persecuted. Now that you’re persecuted, you get to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven!

Of course, the fact that it’s Carey who’s busy doing the persecuting, and the fact that it’s people who want to persecute and villify others that he’s defending might be a bit of a problem. But once you’re being persecuted, I guess you don’t need to be meek, or merciful.

Or honest.

Why is the concept of “secular” so hard to understand?

February 14, 2012

If I was a comedian, I’d make comedy gold out of this: A Muslim, from a country with an established Protestant church goes to the Vatican – an dictatorial theocratic state – to complain about “Militant Secularism”:

My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.

Militant secularisation. That brings to mind secularists bombing parliament in protest against bishops sitting in the House of Lords by right, as the genuinely militant Fawkes did centuries earlier for more religious reasons. Or perhaps secularists bombing religious schools to demand that all schools be secular. Yet, whilst secularists generally hold the view that Bishops should not, by right of being Bishops, hold a seat in the House of Lords; no one is suggesting we campaign with bombs and guns for that outcome. Similarly, whilst secularists would, in general, argue that sectarian religious faith schools should not receive state-funding, no one is suggesting blowing up school buses or schools to make the point.

We’re not (by and large) even arguing that a Bishop may not hold a seat in the House of Lords – simply that they should not hold one purely by virtue of being a Bishop. Similarly, unless we were to campaign against private schools in general (which would be independent of any issue of secularism per se), few if any secularists would demand the abolition of private faith schools : simply the public funding of them (although we might demand a minimum standard of education, as that is the child’s right: I’m looking at you, creationists). This is the militant secularism that has Baroness Warsi so concerned: people are arguing for a secular state through nothing more than the force of their argument, and their actions at the ballot box. Engaging in the political process is apparently all it takes to be militant.

This continuing tarring of the term ‘secular’ to “militant” or “aggressive” secularism by the regligious is absurd and farcical. When one considers Britain and Europe’s historical treatment of defining countries by their allegiance to religious sects, one is considering a history of brutality and bloodshed. Wars being fought over whether we were a Roman Catholic country that should suppress Protestants, or a Protestant country suppressing Roman Catholics. It’s a history of the faith of the people dictated by the faith of the monarch. It’s quite clear that during those periods the religion that you professed could be of extreme import to the comfort and security of your very life.

The simple fact is that the only reason the Pope was able to recently visit and decry secularists as “evil”, and the only reason that Baroness Warsi is able to hold a seat in the House of Lords as a Muslim is because society progressed beyond it’s religious background, and started on a slow and painful journey to a secular state: the weakening of the power of the Church to demand that the people profess the right faith in order to hold public office. And social progress has started to go hand-in-hand with this secular progress in the institutions of government. Much of the social progress that has been made with regard to LGBT equality, and with regards to women’s equality has happened solely because the Churches have lost their once iron grip on the machinations of Parliament. It is notable that – almost exclusively – the hold-outs to gay marriage, just to give one example, is the Church and the religious, and their reasoning is solely religious. I know that Baroness Warsi and the Pope both share the same bigoted, ignorant, and religious views on gay marriage, and LGBT rights: maybe that’s why they’re so upset.

The religious should be careful what they wish for. Secularism is simply the concept that the state takes no stance on religious belief, or the lack there of. It states that it is not the business of the state to tell people that they should pray, when they should pray or to which god they should pray to, if any. It is not the business of the state to say that this faith school will be supported by the public purse, but that one doesn’t: the schools the state pays to run should be secular.

This in no way suggests that the state should abolish religion, or that the religious should have no say in political discourse, and to suggest otherwise is farcical. The secular state properly guarantees the right to religious expression, but you operate within the same boundaries as everyone else. You operate within the law, as everyone else. But if you have an objection to gay marriage, if you have an objection to lesbian marriage, if you have an objection to trangendered people being able to live their lives free of fear and intimidation, if you believe that women should be denied a promotion, or denied emergency contraceptive because of the religious beliefs of her employer or clinician, or chemist; if you believe these things then you need to find an argument that is secular: I wish you no luck in finding it, because I find those things deplorable, but no one is stopping you from trying.

That’s it. It’s really very simple.

O2: How to turn a cockup into a clusterfuck

January 25, 2012

Every IT company makes cock-ups. It’s pretty much unavoidable: you’re dealing with a lot of data, and there’s hundreds of ways things can go wrong. The difference between a good IT company and a bad one is that when something goes wrong with a good IT company, the damage is minimal, and the fallout is properly controlled; when something goes wrong with a bad IT company, the damage is big, and the fallout immersive.

By this definition, the revelation that O2 have been sending out their user’s phone number to every website their customers visited, and the aftermath and PR handling firmly puts O2 in the “not good” category.

Here’s The Register on what happened:

The info leak was highlighted yesterday by O2 customer Lewis Peckover, who set up a littleweb tool that displays all the HTTP header information sent to sites by connecting web browsers. These strings of data include details such as the URL of the page requested, and the web browser and operating system versions used by the person visiting the site.

For customers browsing on an O2 3G connection, these headers also include their telephone number in an x-up-calling-line-id line – added in by proxy server software most likely running on the telco’s network, rather than disclosed by a gadget’s browser or software.

The crucial part is the bit I’ve highlighted, and if you’re not in IT or familiar with the technology that makes the web work, this may not mean much to you, but what it essentially means is that O2 take every page request your browser makes, and neatly tags your phone number to the end. At the risk of making your eyes glaze over, this is roughly what a normal web request looks like:

1) User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_7_2) AppleWebKit/534.52.7 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/5.1.2 Safari/534.52.7
2) Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8
3) Accept-Language: en-us
4) Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
5) X-Forwarded-For:

(the numbers have been added for clarity). Whilst this may look meaningless, it’s actually really easy to understand. Lines 1-4 simply identify, in turn, the type of browser I’m using, what types of files are supported, what languages I can accept, and whether I can accept compressed (zipped) data. All of this is vital information for web-developers: if the browser identifies itself as Internet Explorer 5, for example, the developers know to weep in frustration and existential despair. The fifth line is a kind of de-facto standard that’s used to identify and log IP addresses. There’s a whole host of valid information that can be added to those 5 lines, but the general idea is that these headers are necessary for your browser to play nice with the site you’re visiting (These headers are known as HTTP headers, where HTTP is the Hypertext Transfer Protocol – one of the main protocols that the web is based on – and where that HTTP is the same http you see in almost every website address as “http://%5Bsomewhere%5D“. The more you know, and all that.)

What O2 have done is add a 6th line that looks something like this:

x-up-calling-line-id: 447590XXXYYY

Where XXXYYY is your phone number. What this boils down to is that for quite some time, if you were an O2 customer with a 3G phone, every website you visited over O2′s data network got your phone number absolutely free. This doesn’t just mean “every website you deliberately visit”, it means “every site you visit, every advertising service they use, and everything that uses the in-built browsing facilities of your phone.”

That’s a massive cockup. It’s quite difficult to overstate how big a cockup this is. But O2 managed to make it worse.

Bear in mind that the line “x-up-calling-line-id” that O2 added to the browser is not part of the standard. There’s no reason for that line to exist. It has no purpose. It’s a bit like ordering a lamp, and finding your medical history has been sent to the lamp company. So the question has to be asked: how did that get there? It’s clearly something more than a simple “oops”. There is no possible reason for O2 to add that phone number field at all. So why is it there? How did this otherwise inexplicable cockup occur?

Well O2, helpful as ever, have admitted the mistake and issued a PR disaster release explaining:

AEvery time you browse a website (via mobile or desktop), certain technical information about the machine you are using, is passed to website owners. This happens across the internet, and enables website owners to optimise the site you see.

So far, so good. That “technical information” is the HTTP headers I’ve shown above, it’s absolutely essential to your browsing experience. But the phone number isn’t. O2 continue:

When you browse from an O2 mobile, we add the user’s mobile number to this technical information, but only with certain trusted partners. This is standard industry practice.

Taking the two statements as a whole, it tends to suggest that O2 are claiming that it is standard industry practice to include certain information about the machine you are using and your phone number to website owners. But the phone number is most certainly not standard industry practice. It may be standard O2 practice, and it may even be standard practice amongst mobile phone 3G operators, but that’s hardly standard practice! There’s a standard industry response to this: its to call “BULLSHIT”.

But this still doesn’t answer why they’d want to do something so obviously stupid. O2 have this covered:

We share mobile numbers with selected trusted partners for 3 reasons: 1) to manage age verification, which manages access to adult content, 2) to enable third party content partners to bill for premium content such as downloads or ring tones that the customer has purchased 3) to identify customers using O2 services, such as My O2 and Priority Moments. This only happens over 3G and WAP data services, not WiFi.

If you’re an O2 customer, read that again and let it sink in for a moment. If you’re not an O2 customer, but have a 3G enabled phone, you might still want to let that sink in for a moment; there’s every chance that, whilst O2 got caught with their pants down, your provider is doing this too.

“We share mobile numbers with selected trusted partners”.

After asking “WTF?!”, the next most obvious question is “what trusted partners?” We don’t know, and at the time of writing O2 aren’t saying. You might also want to ask “I didn’t agree to this, where did I agree to this?”. Well, for O2, their broadband terms and conditions are online. Good luck finding such authorisation, because I sure as hell can’t find it.

So what can we surmise so far?

O2 have been caught with their pants down. They started sending their customer’s phone numbers all around the world because they have always been sending their customer’s phone numbers to unnamed “trusted” third parties — parties trusted by O2, of course, not necessarily trusted by their customers who’s confidential information they are so cavalier about. We can further guess that they cocked up configuring their proxies (systems vaguely similar to the wireless router you’re probably connecting to the internet to), and it is that that lead to private information being leaked to all-and-sundry.

But it’s only the phone number, right? No.

This is, I think, where the shit really hits the fan. In their FAQ, O2 state:

Q: Which of my information can website owners access?

A: The only information websites had access to is your mobile number, which could not have been linked to any other identifying information we have about customers.  

O2 highlighted the question, I think the answer is more interesting.

Look back up to why O2 are sharing your information: to manage age verification to manage access to adult content, to enable third part content partners to bill you, and identify customers using O2 services.

Can you guess which of those services can be carried out solely through the use of a phone number without revealing any further information about the person? Because I sure as hell can’t. Indeed the very act of answering of the question provides more information about a person. Want to use your mobile number to verify age in order to access adult services (which does not necessarily mean porn, BTW)? You have just disclosed that the person with this mobile number is over 18 years of age. You’ve potentially associated a useful demographic with a mobile number (and everything else that you may be providing in order to access adult content)

The simple fact is that it is simply not possible for the answer to that question to be true. I don’t think O2 are lying, I think their PR people haven’t the foggiest clue of the utter clusterfuck they’ve got on their hand. I don’t think they have the faintest clue of the enormity of both their cockup and their subsequent PR clusterfuck. More importantly, I don’t think they have the faintest clue just how dodgy their system was before “business as usual” – treating customer’s data with utter contempt – was shown up to the world by a simple mis-configured proxy server.

And, as I said before, this isn’t just O2 doing this. They’re just the ones that got caught out this time.

A long explanation of a damned fine joke. PtII.

May 31, 2011

When I last looked at number systems nearly two years ago, I promised to do a follow up to the question “Why”. Why would someone choose to use binary, octal and hexadecimal number-bases instead of the familiar base-10 (decimal) system we use in our day-to-day life. I may have written it over 2 years ago without doing the promised follow-up, but it still seems to be the most visited page on this rather decrepit blog, so I thought I really should start to answer the question.

The answer lies in the fact that computers – as is often stated – store information using two states: ON, and OFF. (Note to the pendantic: this is not strictly true, but is – as they say – a necessary truth for the purposes of discussion).

SR NOR Latch, copyright Napalm Llama

SR NOR Latch

Above is a Flip Flop circuit known as an SR NOR Latch, and it is a very basic form of memory. I will explain briefly how it works, but all you really need to know is that each of the two symbols represent what is known as a logic gate, that logic gates are made of transistors, and that this particular arrangement of transistors means that a value – a ‘state’ – can be kept as ‘memory’.

For those interested in how it works; it rests around a simple statement: if a switch is ON, it is NOT OFF. Similarly, if a switch is OFF, it is NOT ON. Simple, yes? Simple, but it forms the basis of a series of similar ‘statements’ which form the backbone of computing, known as ‘Truth tables’.  A similar statement could be “If I hold a coin in either my left hand OR my right hand, then I hold a coin” and “If I hold a coin in neither of my hands, then I do not hold a coin”. Again, a simple statement, but statements like these really do form the backbone of computing.

Left hand Right hand Left hand OR Right hand

In the SR NOR latch, you can see two large symbols. These symbols represent a NOR gate, where ‘gate’ is simply a term used to describe the electronics that make the gate (transistors and resistors mostly, if you’re curious) and NOR stands for NOT OR. If you look again at the NOR gates, you will see two lines going in from the left – its Inputs – and one line coming out on the right – its output. The gate takes its two inputs and uses a simple rule to generate an output: If both its inputs are OFF, then the output is ON. If any of the two inputs are ON the output is OFF.

Input 1 Input 2 Input 1 NOR Input 2

Above is the truth table for the NOR gate laid out much like the coins in the first table. It is unfortunate that in English ‘nor’ as a word has a very different meaning that NOR using in computing, but then, strictly speaking, the word OR is very different in computing too, but that’s another joke for another time. Suffice to say that NOR mean “Take whatever the result would be if you asked my ‘or’, but give me the opposite”.

Now look at the lines marked ‘S’ and ‘R’. The letters S and R stand for “Set” and “Reset”. You can see each of these lines form one of the inputs of the NOR gates. The second Input of each gate is the Output of the other gate. The series of diagrams below show what happens when you start this system.

In step 1 – when the system is first turned on, we assume all inputs are 0. If all inputs are 0, then both of the outputs – A and B – must be 1. This can be confirmed by looking again at the truth table above. However, the output marked A forms the second input to the ‘S’ NOR, and the output marked B forms the second input to the ‘R’ NOR, giving this:

In step 2, the outputs from the first stage are shown as the inputs B and A. In this case, both NOR gates have one input with at least one line ON (shown here as 1), which means, both outputs come out as 0 – OFF. Take the outputs from this stage, and feed it back in again, and the outputs flip again:

The outputs keep flip-flopping. Left to its own devices, this is utterly useless. However so far we haven’t touched the R or S line. What happens if we put something in the R line?

Simply by briefly setting R to 1, we have changed the nature of the diagram: A and B for the first time are asymmetrical: they hold different values. A is now 0, and B is now 1. Not terribly useful for memory, but what if you now drop R back to 0? You get this:

The system is now stable. So long as you don’t touch S, no matter what else you do to R, A will always remain at 0, and B at 1. This circuit has remembered that at some stage in the past, we toggled the value of R from 0 to 1. What if you want to set the value of A to 1? You toggle S:

Here, we’ve toggled S, but we have a problem: A and B now have the same values. In order for the flip-flop to work as memory, and not simply a system that flips between two states as it was when we started, we need these values to be different (this is what the bars over the Q in the opening image means: “Not Q”, it must hold the value “Not Q” or the thing just doesn’t work). If we hold S for just one more cycle though, we get this:

A and B now hold separate values, and A now has the value 1 – which was our goal originally. As A and B are now asymmetric again, we can release S:


There is nothing particularly special about having to hold S for two cycles, the same is actually true of reseting the system so that A is 0 again (by toggling R).

The important point here is that using a relatively simple piece of electronics that can be described in a diagram using just two symbols, we have working memory (and if you’re really interested, it takes 2 transistors and 6 resistors to make one). It may start off unstable, giving meaningless results, but once it has been deliberately set ON or OFF, it retains that value – it ‘remembers’ the last ‘instruction’ given to it. Incidentally, the term used for when a value is set and retained like this is ‘latched’, thus the name S(et) R(eset) NOR Latch.

Okay, so we can store two states: ON or OFF. But we don’t live in a world where two states should be enough for anyone, we live in a world where entire music collections and literary works are stored in memory, on disks, and transmitted across the internet. We live in a bigger world than ‘on’ and ‘off. So how do we get from these two states, to whole music collections?

Simple really. We just string a lot of them together.

What happens if we string two of these together? Instead of our two states of ON and OFF, we now have four possible states: OFF and OFF, OFF and ON, ON and OFF and ON and ON. By adding another bit of memory, we can now store 4 possible states. If we string one more, we can store EIGHT possible values. String four together? SIXTEEN possible values. String eight of these together and we can store a massive TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY SIX possible values, just by stringing together 8 little bits of electronics that can be turned ON or OFF. With each consecutive ‘bit’ of memory added, you double the amount of states – the amount of information – that can be recorded.

Which brings us neatly back on to binary: why would anyone use binary instead of our day-to-day decimal? Well, if ON is 1 and OFF is 0, then you have a base-two number system. ON/OFF/OFF/OFF can be written 1000, which in base 2 is 8. ON/ON/OFF/ON can be written 1101, which is 13. Or, to put it another way, if you want to store the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, that can be stored as ON/OFF/ON/OFF/ON/OFF.

So that answers why we use binary, but why Octal and Hexadecimal? The answer to that question is strangely arbitrary, but it’s one that we’re stuck with. I hope to get around to answering that a lot quicker than two years.

(that’s 42, which in binary is 101010)

The Rapture

May 21, 2011

So today is Rapture day, is it? As predicted by Harold Camping, today is the first day of Judgement as predicted by the Bible. Overlooking the utter absurdity of the amount of coverage this strange man has managed to acheive, there’s one slight problem:

He replied “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am he.’ and ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.

That’s the Bible: Luke 21:8-9. Unfortunately, this passage doesn’t just tell Christians to be wary of weird people screaming “The end is nigh!”, it also contains the very first failed prediction of the coming apolocalypse:

“I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened” Luke 21:33.

If the Messiah himself couldn’t accurately predict his own return, I don’t think there’s much hope for American preachers. (Read the whole thing, incidentally, it’s wonderful example of a non-prediction) To be fair, Jesus is also reported to have not known himself what the hell was going on:

“No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mathew 24:36)… “Therefore keep your watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Mathew 24:42-44)

God, it would seem, is clearly not putting his schedule up on Facebook.

There is a serious point here though. The simple fact is that these are not obscure passages, but ones that are constantly referred to in Western Christianity. They are so frequently referred to that I still knew where to find them in the Bible despite being an atheist for some 16 years. This whole charade is a reflection of theology in general: that the believer must dismiss what is plainly written in their sacred texts, and instead believe that only by looking at the Bible in an obscure, slanted way, handed down from on high can the believer be saved.

This is an approach not limited to fringe American preachers getting far too much airtime, but is present every time a religion finds itself on the losing side of a moral argument, or the losing side of a scientific question (i.e. all of the time); when the religion eventually concedes that it screwed up, the religious skew the meaning of their books, and (after giving everyone time to forget just how wrong they were), claim they were in the right all along, if only you read their books “properly” (or “with sophisticated theology”, as is the now-popular term). Once you realise why the rapture is not just silly, but ignores what’s plainly written, you quickly realise why all religions are, frankly, just bloody stupid.

Ken Clarke, and those rape comments

May 18, 2011

Labour are calling for Ken Clarke to be sacked, and half of Twitter is calling for his head on a spike. But based upon what I’m reading, he’s being crucified for saying something he simply did not say.

What’s the issue? The issue is that the government is proposing to allow people who plead guilty to certain crimes – including rape – a reduction of up to 50% the normal sentence. The current maximum is a third off the sentence. The reason for this is that it provides an incentive for a person who is guilty of a crime to confess, and enter a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity, saving everyone a lot of time and money. The incentive is necessary because without it there is no good reason for a person who is guilty of a crime to ever plead guilty – it’s far better to take your chances with the courts as you have nothing to loose and everything to gain.

At this point you may agree or disagree with the degree of the incentive, but let’s be clear that at this point we are simply talking an issue of the degree: should the incentive to plead guilty to a crime be a 33% reduction in a sentence, or should it be a 50% reduction.

People countering the new degree of incentive have latched on to a figure for the average sentence for rape (please note, these are not official figures, these are simply the figures as they were presented in the Radio 4 discussion, and subsequently reported by the BBC). According to people opposed to the change, the average sentence for rape is 5 years. With a guilty plea entered at the earliest opportunity, that sentence would be reduced to 2.5 years, and with a standard release on early license, the sentence served in prison would become 15 months.

Now, what follows is a discussion of the facts discussed. I’m not at this point considering what a sentence for various forms of rape should be, only in the figures being discussed. I have no particular knowledge of sentencing guidelines in the UK. I will, however, point out that the difference being discussed is 5 months: a person sentenced under current guidelines whould serve 20 months in jail of a 5 year sentence assuming everything else is equal.

So this is the complaint put to Ken Clarke on the radio:

If you are talking about halving it to two-and-a-half years and then a person gets out halfway through their sentence on licence which is usual, then we are talking about sentences of 15 months which have no regard at all for the gravity of the offence and gives no time for rehabilitation or training,

To which Ken Clarke responded:

That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds..

Serious rape – I don’t think many judges give five years for a forcible rape frankly, the tariff is longer than that. A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman – the tariff is longer than that.

The BBC interviewer interjected saying

Rape is rape, with respect

To which Clarke responded with:

No it’s not, if an 18-year-old has sex with a 15 year old and she’s perfectly willing, that is rape. Because she is under age, she can’t consent… What you and I are talking about is we are talking about a man forcibly having sex with a woman and she doesn’t want to – a serious crime.

I will put to one side for the moment the initial comment on “Date Rape”, but I will come back to it.

What Clarke has said here regarding sex between consenting teenagers is a serious issue. I may or may not agree with Clarke on this matter (I am far from sufficiently qualified to comment), but it is a widely held viewpoint that consensual sex between teenagers (where consensual is defined as ‘understanding what they’re doing, whilst not being legally able to give consent) is not rape in the same sense as non-consensual sex. Here, Clarke is arguing that this is reflected in the sentencing.

Whether one agrees with Clarke on this matter or not, it is important to understand this point. If Clarke is correct and the 5 year average sentence for rape is skewed towards leniency by cases of consensual sex between teenagers (and, I will emphasise again that I do not know whether this is ture), then claiming that rapists will be “let off” with 15 month prison senetences begins to look suspect. Whether you agree with Clarke or not, this is a reasonable line of defence to take.

The more thorny topic is the “date rape” comment (taken from the BBC):

He also said date rapes were included in the figures which could be “sometimes very confusing” adding: “Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes but date rapes… in my very old experience of being in trials [from his time as a practising lawyer]… they do vary extraordinarily one from another, and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.”

I am strongly of the position that any non-consensual sex is rape. I am also of the position than if the conditions of consensual sex are not met, that is rape. I have lambasted supporters of Julian Assange for claiming that sex without a condom is not rape: if the woman asks you to wear a condom, and you don’t, it is rape.

It is not, however, unreasonable to note the fact that there are degrees of rape. Before you complain about that statement, let me clarify what those degrees are: the scale rages from Very Serious through Gravely Serious to Extremely Serious. It is not trivialising rape to note that some forms of rape are extremely serious, and some are even more gravely so.

If I were to take serious issue with what Clarke has said it is this: Date Rape is not a valid term. If a woman is raped in her home, in a hotel room or an alleyway, that woman has been raped. The term Date Rape, I believe, trivialises that issue, and possibly makes it harder to convince duries to convict. The term Date Rape should be eradicated.

Ken Clarke may have initially worded his thoughts poorly (the initial “serious rape” terminology that many have seized),  but it is quite clear he is not trivialising rape in the way that many seem to think he is.

Catholic Church calls for dissolution of Monarchy.

April 18, 2011

The Catholic Church has called for the dissolution of the monarchy, and the disestablishment of the Church of England. Okay, not quite but not far off:

Peter Kearney, spokesman for the church in Scotland, claimed existing legislation which bars any Catholic from taking the throne is “nothing but state-sponsored sectarianism” and backed a call from First Minister Alex Salmond to change the “indefensible” law.

Yup, Catholics barred from being the monarch is state-sponsored sectarianism. Peter Kearney is absolutely right here. Protestants barred from being Pope is also state-sponsored sectarianism, of course, but this fact appears to have missed Mr kearney. Whether we like it or not, the monarch is the head of the Church of England. It’s practically what defines the establishment of the CofE, and practically defines the last remaining use of the monarchy.

I’ll cut Kearney a deal. We’ll allow a Catholic monarch when the Catholic church allows a Protestant Pope. This isn’t going to happen, and I have no desire to trade bombs or bullets over the subject, so let’s propose a more modest approach: The monarch dissolves, the CofE becomes disestablished, and in return, the Vatican renounces all claims to statehood.

I like that outcome. Come on Benny-boy, go for it.

“Sincerely held religious belief”

January 26, 2011

There’s some interesting commentary going on at the moment with regard to the Christian hoteliers who banned two married people from staying in their hotel because they weren’t, to coin a phrase, the right type of married. The couple weren’t banned because the hoteliers were Catholics and believed – with a deeply held conviction – that one of the partners was a divorcee and divorcees can’t remarry, they were banned because neither of the partners in the marriage happened to be a woman.

After the couple took the hoteliers to court for discrimination on the grounds that one of them was a divorcee they were gay, the court found in favour of the couple. This is the correct decision as far as I’m concerned. It is no more right to deny a public service to a gay couple than it is right to deny that same public service to a couple where one partner happens to be a divorcee.

What I don’t understand is the subsequent eruption of fury denouncing this judgement as starting a conflict between religious conviction and the law. Religion has been at conflict with the law for a long time, and religion has always been on the loosing side. If one accepts that the hoteliers “sincerely held religious belief” is enough to let them off the hook for denying accommodation to a gay couple, then one must accept an innumerable number of monstrous sincerely held religious beliefs. If it is enough that a law can be ignored because the person ignoring it sincerely believes it is wrong, then why have any law?

LGBT rights have been hard fought for, and they clearly have a way to go if the hoteliers in this case can freely appeal the ruling against them. But why is “I am a Christian, and I believe homosexuality is wrong” even considered a reasonable excuse for blatant bigotry?

Look at this from another point of view: The Anglican church does not have women bishops. The Catholic church does not have women bishops. Both churches refuse to even consider the idea of women being permitted to attain positions of power. Imagine if the Catholic Church owned IBM, or the Anglican Church owned Sainsburys. Imagine, for a moment, those churches, in those positions, stated – as they do within their own communion – that women cannot, by virtue of being women, hold positions of power in Sainsbury or IBM.

Imagine now that they said “and no gays either”. Religion is not an excuse for bigotry. Religion is just the cover that bigots use when they discover they’re not longer wanted.

Protests and tone

September 21, 2010

I went to the Protest the Pope march in London on Saturday. Never having been to a political protest I really had no idea what to expect. Would we have a riot? Would we be looting shops and burning cars? Of course we didn’t; we walked a set route with some banners – some amusing, some serious, some…odd – and had some fun with the odd chant (“Get your rosaries off my ovaries” was a popular one, although, not having any ovaries, I felt a bit odd chanting that. “Your priest/pope may be gay that’s okay” sung to “London bridge is falling down” was another favourite). At the end of the march we listened to some speeches (occasionally straining to hear what was said over the incessant sound of a police helicopter), cheered in the appropriate places, then went to the pub, then went home.

All in all a fun time with a serious message. So I have been absolutely staggered by the outcry amongst some people over the march. One person has “had it with Dawkins“, expressing

Disappointment at the way he failed utterly to use reason, or logic, or rationality in his speech, preferring instead emotive platitudes and fallacious diatribes. Alarm at the crowd of protesters cheering his every sentence, reserving their loudest jeering for his portrayals of the Pope as ‘an enemy’, and for his characterisation of ‘them’ as running scared from ‘us’.


Brewing anger at the way the name ‘atheist’, which I have identified with ever since I first heard it, has been dragged through the mud over the last weekend by both the Pope’s ridiculous taunting and by Dawkins’ brawling mob of ‘secular humanists’ or whatever it is they’re calling themselves now.

Another writer on Twitter, also complaining about tone, points to these pictures of banners saying

Check out the tone of 6, 16, 17, 21, 24, 26 and 30.

In order, these banners say:

  • “Fuck the pope, but use a condom” (The pope opposes condom use, has blamed condoms for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and under Canon Law considers condom use on a par with child rape. I am not joking.)
  • “Do you fancy baby Jesus” (Do I really need to say that “Jesus loves you” and “Do you love Jesus” are both common refrains in all forms of Christianity, yet the Pope considers homosexuality a sin. The Pope is implicated in the scandal of the cover-up of pedophile priests. The joke practically writes itself. I personally found this sign poignant)
  • “I’d rather touch myself than a little child” (Believe it or not, the Pope actually opposes masturbation, and places it as the same kind of sin as child rape.)
  • “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid (with a picture of the pope kissing a child)” (This one may be considered in bad taste if you are utterly devoid of compassion or humour. But only because the Pope himself has not been accused of molesting or raping children. He is “only” accused of ensuring more children would be molested and raped under his command of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith [the successor to the Inquisition] where he protected pedophile priests from exposure, and – it is alleged – took every measure to ensure they would not face justice)
  • “By the way, I wanked this morning. Must be genocide if abortion is murder” (This is simply the logical conclusion of the position of the church on contraception and masturbation.)
  • “2 4 6 8 You don’t need a cock to transubstantiate” (I cannot for the life of me figure out how this one is even remotely offensive. The pope does not recognise the ordination of women – indeed, he now considers the ordination of women as the same class of offense as pedophilia. The only difference is that a pedophile priest will not be excommunicated, whilst a priest ordaining a woman will be. As will the ordained woman.)
  • “If I was a billionaire paedophile, I’d make my car look like an Ice Cream van” (Again, the only thing here that could be remotely offensive is the accusation that the pope is a paedophile. His car does look like an Ice Cream van.)

Seriously. This is bad tone? Fuck that! What did people expect the banners to say? “Excuse me Pope, if you don’t mind, would you possibly – in your own time of course – perhaps reconsider your position on condoms? They’re really not that bad really, and the scientific consesus is that they don’t actually cause AIDS, but no rush you understand”? Or, perhaps, “Dear Pope, when you have a moment, could you look in to the issue of the church’s cover-up of child abuse while you were head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. If it’s not too much trouble of course”.

And what of Richard Dawkins speech? What was so bad about Richard Dawkins speech?  The video of the speech he gave at the rally is on YouTube. This was a necessarily condensed version of the speech he wanted to give, the full text of which can be found on Richard Dawkin’s site here. What was it that Stuart Sharpe found so offensive that he found the word atheist “dragged through the mud”? Well,

he’s hell-bent on proving to you that Hitler not only wasn’t an atheist, Hitler was a Catholic.

Bollocks! (How’s that for tone?). Pure and utter bollocks. There is no need to prove that Hitler was a Catholic, it is a well established historical fact that Hitler was a Catholic. Dawkins was not proving Hitler was a Catholic. He was protesting. He was protesting the fact that the Pope chose, in his very first speech, to blame the rise on Nazism on atheists, and then later to warn agains the rise of “aggressive secularism” – which, incidentally, was not referring to placards on protest banners.

What the fuck is wrong here? What is so wrong about Richard Dawkins – at a protest the pope march – protesting about the pope’s absurd, deluded – and unfortunately all too common within religious circles – accusation that atheists were to blame for the rise of Nazism?  Maybe Sharpe is happy to laugh the accusation off, but you know what: I’m not. This isn’t some random nutjob in some back-water Facebook forum blaming Hitler on the atheists, this is the fucking Pope on a fucking state-visit, paid for by me, to insult me, and to call me – an atheist, a liberal and a secularist – “Nazi”, “immoral”, and “evil” in that order. Just what fucking response do people expect?

Fuck the Pope.

But wear a condom.


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