I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hurdy-gurdy in a metal band before…

Published in: on January 13, 2008 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  


Lord VetinariInspired by my own comment on my last post, I thought I’d gather together some of my favourite quotations concerning Lord Vetinari, the Patrician in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

“I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.”

“They think they want good government and justice for all, Vimes, yet what is it they really crave, deep in their hearts? Only that things go on as normal and tomorrow is pretty much like today.”

“It is in the nature of people to turn on their leaders when they fail to be lucky.”

“I have certainly noticed that groups of clever and intelligent people are capable of really stupid ideas.”

“He had always suspected the poetic description of Time like an ever-rolling stream. Time, in his experience, moved more like rocks… sliding, pressing, building up force underground and then, with one jerk that shakes the crockery, a whole field of turnips mysteriously slips sideways by six feet.”

Published in: on January 8, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Suicidal Ideation

Krup Industrial RevolutionI have a very obsessive mind. It always wants to proclaim something as meaningful, as worthwhile, as an object of virtue. In my better moods I can enjoy something for what it is, but frequently such enjoyment will trigger a religious conversion. I will become convinced that this or that ideology is the arbiter of worth. These days, I am self-aware enough to have a fair chance of noticing when this happens, thus I find that it happens more and more insidiously.

I just spent an enjoyable weekend at my parents’ house. My two-year-old niece was there. She spent a happy half hour bashing the keyboard on my laptop. So I wrote her program that beeped and displayed photos of her grandma whenever she hit a key. She loved it. After dinner, I wrote a version of Pong to play with my sister, which was also fun. It’s this sort of thing that makes me like computers – the ability to create a game or perform some complicated (or tedious) task in only a few (enjoyable) minutes.

Then on the way back to London I found myself driving through the countryside. As I watched the old farms, hills and woods, I felt a deep affinity for rural, traditional England and was sorry to be returning to the filthy city. Suddenly I sensed a great conflict between my love of technology and my love of the country. Somehow, over the course of less than twenty-four hours, I had managed to turn enjoyment of two different aesthetics into an ideological dispute. Without being able to explain why, I couldn’t reconcile liking computers with liking the countryside. They were completely incompatible.

The problem was that I couldn’t merely like computers, I had to find their meaning. I couldn’t simply enjoy an aesthetic, I had to discover the principle behind it. Having done so, I made it the measure of worth to the exclusion of all else. All this from a couple of hours programming. Then twenty minutes driving along a country lane had driven me to accept open nature and the simple, traditional life as the ultimate virtue.

The only way I could reconcile these two mutually exclusive principles was to subordinate them to something else. Something had to be elevated to the highest good so that everything else could be accepted as a tool to obtain that good; or, at least, so that something would occupy that position in my mind so that I could enjoy other things without turning them into ideologies.

Happily, once identified, these obsessions can be dispelled as fast as they arise. Nevertheless, they are a real pain. I think I have ideological OCD.

Published in: on January 7, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  

Culture and Interfaces

CLIThis article may not be to everyone’s taste (if you don’t have any experience using computers it will probably be largely incomprehensible) but it has some interesting things to say about culture, by way of computer operating systems…

In the Beginning was the Command Line

Published in: on January 4, 2008 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  


Alice ArtHere are some freely available articles that I think are worth taking the time to read:

Published in: on January 3, 2008 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  


COBEMany spiritually inclined people describe atheism as ‘sterile’ or ‘dry’. They believe that science has stripped the world of its mystery and left only bleak logic where once there was wonder.

But who are these “spiritually inclined” people? What does it mean to be inclined towards spirit? I believe they are people seeking meaning. They are people who wish for their lives to have a purpose. Unsatisfied with mere existence, they are looking for a deeper meaning in their lives. To borrow a phrase from Afaggdu, they are those “who look between the cracks of the normal, the profane and the everyday for the sacrality of tradition and its great hidden depths.”

Some people appear to be satisfied by quite trite and shallow answers to these questions. Some people apparently feel the need to seek a purpose but are then happy to accept any purpose proffered them. Those that fall for L. Ron Hubbard’s science-fiction religion believe that their purpose in life is to escape the evil psychic influence of the extraterrestrial tyrant Xenu. (Really, they do.) Literal-minded Christians find a purpose for their life in the worship of a magic carpenter. (Really, they do.) I can’t decide which is funnier, or perhaps more depressing. Muslims with their magic pederast are in much the same ballpark.

I don’t recognise anything spiritual in these superficial cults. I don’t see people with a need for something deeper. These are not people who “look between the cracks of the normal” – these people are just cracked. Many of them were brought up that way and have never questioned what they were taught. Others may have felt that uncanny feeling that there’s something more to life, that disturbing sense that their everyday life is meaningless and just not very important, that strange tug that pulls people away from the quotidian and towards the mysterious, but they accepted the first cult they came across and smothered the unquiet.

Others find meaning in less overtly religious settings. Instead they devote themselves to a political party, or a conspiracy theory, or to environmentalism, or to innumerable other ‘isms’ – all with much the same result as joining a more obvious cult.

But others have devoted themselves to science. Far from finding it dry or sterile, they can conceive of nothing more wondrous than uncovering underlying principles that govern all reality. What could be more mysterious than the inner workings of reality itself? What could be more marvellous than to perceive the universal laws? One only has to hear a great scientist’s rhapsody on nature to realise that, for them at least, this is where meaning is to be found.

A scientist is exactly the sort of person who looks between the cracks of the everyday. A scientist always wonders ‘Why?’ Why does this happen? How does this affect that? What happens if I do this and why does it happen? This continual quest for answers, this eternal desire to uncover mysteries, strikes me as considerably more ‘spiritual’ than the petty and bizarre cults that absorb so many others.

I find it strange that what began as a driven, spiritual quest to read the “Book of Nature” is now considered to be dead, dry and sterile. However, I suspect that the answer lies in a misunderstanding of the scientist’s desire to uncover mystery. For it is the mysterious that engenders wonder. It is in the presence of the awesome that people undergo a ‘religious experience’. So they see the scientist’s desire to unveil mystery, to explain through calculations the mechanisms behind the mysterious, as an attempt to strip the world of its wonder, to remove the capacity for awe.

But this is a mistake. For the wonder that a scientist experiences is precisely the wonder engendered by his discoveries. If you condemn a scientist for wondering how things work, you might as well condemn all religious and spiritual endeavours as similar attempts to “explain away” the object of their practices. Einstein’s description of the purpose of his scientific explorations – he hoped they would bring him “closer to the secret of the Old One” – would not seem out of place in an initiatory text.

I think, perhaps, that it is the final goal of science that repels people. The Holy Grail of physicists is the reduction of all physical laws to a single Theory of Everything. This idea that everything might be explained, that everything might be reduced to a few logical rules, again scares people that the mystery of life might be lost. Or, at least, it turns people against science as they believe its ultimate goal, whether feasible or not, is abhorrent. But, as with any Grail Quest, it is the seeking that matters. The ultimate goal of most seekers is just the same: if it were actually achieved, there would be nothing more to do, and no more mystery. That scientists explain this in an easily understood manner is their only mistake.

Furthermore, many scientists think that the greatest mystery of all is that fact that scientific endeavour appears to work. The universe really does appear to work according to regular laws and, furthermore, those laws are amenable to human reason. This is amazing. As Einstein wrote, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”

But then Einstein was a great man, wiser, perhaps, than some of the current crop of militant atheists. Perhaps it is the intolerant dogmatism of Richard Dawkins and his ilk that turns people so vehemently against atheism and, by association, against science. But atheism was not always expressed in such a manner. Atheism has been just as deep and sincere as any religion – if Dawkins is to be the standard bearer of atheism then a fair equivalent would be Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell on the side of religion.

In an article bemoaning the propensity of contemporary Christian clerics to ignore traditional Christian teachings in favour of environmentalism, Brendan O’Neill wrote:

Christian teaching was once concerned with man, meaning and morality, with questions of free will, inner life and human destiny. As it happens, atheists, at least progressive ones, were concerned with exactly the same things. The chasm-sized difference between atheists and Christians occurred over the question of whether the moral meaning of man came from within or without; whether, as some atheists believed, the purpose of humanity was to be found within humanity itself; or, as Christians believed, humanity achieved meaning only through an external deity, God.

Where Christian morality granted man a diluted form of free will – underpinned by the idea that, yes, we make free choices, but God is the ultimate arbiter of our destiny – progressive atheists emphasised complete free will, arguing that only through full freedom of thought and a human-centred morality could humans remake the world in their own image and according to their own needs and desires.

Whatever you may think about the goals or morals of atheism, it is as valid a spiritual path as Christianity. Indeed, I would rank atheism along with Christianity and Islam as the three great monotheisms of today. I am not a fan of monotheism, so it follows that I am not a great fan of atheism either, but I much prefer sincere, thoughtful atheism to the spiritless cults of modern Christianity or fundamentalist Islam. Also, science works.

Published in: on January 2, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  


ResolveMr Afagddu, one of my stalwart partners in crime, has written eloquently about the differences between oaths and resolutions. I have taken a Yule oath, and now I shall declare my New Year’s Resolutions. There is a theme…

  • Smoke more. My pipe was sadly neglected in November and December, only being lit a couple of times and then with rather old and dry tobacco. Happily, Afaggdu has provided me with some fantastic new tobacco which I sampled for the first time last night. Nothing is more relaxing and gently pleasurable than a pipe of fine tobacco. Over this coming year I will take more time to enjoy such slow pleasures.
  • Drink more. I would like to spend more time truly appreciating the drinks that I have until now swallowed unthinkingly. I intend to keep track of the beers, wines and other concoctions that I sample over the year and to spend some time investigating their origins. I would like to recognise different grapes, hops and fermentation processes. I think a deeper understanding of the ingredients and processes behind the creation of the liquid in my glass or tankard will lead to a more satisfying and pleasurable experience.
  • Eat more. I have always enjoyed cooking but it takes me a very long time. I can spend hours faffing in a kitchen to produce a single meal that I will eat in minutes. When I have time to spare, this is great, but when I am tired after work I often cannot be bothered to cook a proper meal and instead resort to instant noodles, pizza or similar. I resolve to put a bit more effort into cooking decent meals and to making sure that I have time to prepare them and enjoy them properly.
  • Spend less. I am terrible at managing my own money. Admittedly, after rent, bills and taxes, there isn’t much left each month anyway, but that should inspire me to greater feats of thriftiness rather than my current “sod it, I’ll worry about that later” approach, which is disappointingly ineffective. Most of my excessive spending is the result of laziness, poor planning or a desire for instant gratification. I ought to be able to do better than that.
Published in: on January 1, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)