Saturday, 31 March 2007

So right, and yet so wrong

I don't think I've mentioned I Drew This on this blog yet, so it's time I rectified that. IDT is a webcomic drawn by DC Simpson, illustrating his take on news, politics and the world in general. Polemic webcomics aren't always that good (when any artform is co-opted to make serious points, the art tends to suffer), but this one's pretty impressive. More to the point, it provides an outlet so that not too much politics gets mixed into Ozy and Millie, his other (and, I think, considerably better) strip. Simpson is one of those people you really want to have a coffee with at some point - obviously very intelligent, holding strong opinions, and willing both to share them and debate them.

Fortunately, he's provided a means of doing the latter, at least, through his contributions to the Bird Brains blog. There's usually a lot of interesting stuff on there, most of which I agree with; obviously, though, there will be bits where I disagree. One of these popped up last month, when Simpson wrote a long post stating his opposition to the use of the Ten Commandments for...well, anything. I've been meaning to write about this, as he does make a number of compelling points. Sadly, they're kind of buried under a whole lot of other misunderstandings (to put it mildly), so I thought it would be worth having a look at the separate claims made. I'd better warn you that this is likely to be rather a long post, so you may be better off leaving it unless you've got plenty of time!

Simpson starts out by looking at the Ten Commandments themselves, describing them as "lame". He divides them into "God being insecure", "thought policing" and "ridiculous religious rules", along with three "modern moral precepts". The first category contains the first three commandments, and yes, they do look as though God's trying to protect himself. The problem with that, though, is that protection clauses are always there as filler, in order to instil people with awe so that they won't disobey the other clauses; the overarching theme of much of the Old Testament, though, is about the people of Israel's failure to keep these first three commandments. In other words, "you shall have no other God but me" is not a lead-in before the good stuff, it is the most important commandment, and one that is echoed in Jesus' "first commandment" to "love the Lord your God" with everything available.

This does sound weird to us - surely the commandments are for our benefit, as the basis of our society? Well, no, that's not their primary function - they're supposed to regulate our relationship with God. And as such, it does make sense that they will focus on him first, and us second. On to the second group, then, the "thought policing" - honouring your father and mother, no bearing of false witness, and no covetousness. Honestly, I can't see thought police activity anywhere in the first two, which are purely about actions - more to the point, they're excellent standards to keep to if you want to maintain good familial and interpersonal relationships. The last one does talk about thoughts, but the clear distinction drawn Biblically between temptation and action (even Jesus was tempted, but didn't sin) strongly suggests that this commandment is talking about indulging covetousness - using it to shape your thoughts and actions - rather than the odd random temptation that flits in to your brain. Once again, a guide for interpersonal relationships, although again it is worth noting that it's not explicitly meant for building a society.

The "ridiculous religious rules" section doesn't appear to contain anything except the prohibition against working on the Sabbath, which Simpson twists into "doing nothing but worship on Sunday". That's again not the point - it's a commandment that's there to give us space to be with God, not a rigidly scheduled and legalistic framework. Again, look at Jesus' actions on this front - healing a man with the words "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath". If we then move on to the "modern moral precepts" - no murder, no adultery, no theft (and to be honest I don't see much that's exclusively "modern" about those) - Simpson skates over the latter two and misquotes the first as "you shall not kill", then seems surprised when this straw-man commandment is broken by the Israelites waging war. The commandment is actually "you shall not murder" - and murder pretty obviously doesn't include warfare or accidental manslaughter, as shown by the existence of the cities of refuge in Israel.

I've brought up the concept of war in the Bible, so let's move on to what Simpson has to say about that. He refers to the wars of the Old Testament as "merciless slaughter of neighbouring tribes who weren't obviously doing anyone any harm". Well, let's ignore for a minute the many tribes who attempted to exterminate Israel over its existence (Assyrians, Babylonians, Philistines, Hittites, you name it...), and address the point that I think he was probably trying to make, that of the seemingly greedy and rapacious conquest of Canaan recorded in Joshua. First, notice that the conquest of the various cities noted was not for material gain - indeed, Israelites found taking plunder rather than destroying it were executed. Secondly, and more importantly, it was made abundantly clear to the Israelites that they were acting as God's judgement on the people they were invading. They weren't in Canaan because they were the good guys, but because there would be room for them after God had punished another nation for its sins. I'll admit that that doesn't sound a whole lot better immediately, but I'll come back to that later.

Simpson then presents ten commandments that he thinks we should follow (taken from Ebon Musings) and contrasts them with the Biblical list, claiming that these are much better commandments to live one's life by - from the perspective of building interpersonal and social relationships. To be fair, the list he finds is full of good things, but his conclusion - that these commandments have "far greater morality" in them than the Biblical ones - is not really a comparison that can be accurately drawn, given the much greater Biblical focus on one's relationship with God and the almost cursory attention given to society-building. What's more, some of the contrasts he makes between these new commandments and Biblical concepts are just plain wrong. Take commandment 7, with Simpson's commentary in parentheses.

7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be
ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them. (This
one wins the award for most diametric opposition to Yahweh's whole "believe with
no evidence, or I'll let Satan torture you for eternity" thing.)

Many people have commented on the misappropriation of the word "faith" to support the concept of "blind acceptance" - I'll simply say that nowhere in the Bible are we ever told to "believe with no evidence". In fact, "test all things" is an almost direct quotation from 1 Thessalonians 5:21 ("Test everything. Hold on to the good.") You can also see at least one point in the new commandments where a Biblical concept is explicitly more "moral" than the new one - Simpson says that he prefers "forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted" to Jesus' "turn the other cheek". To very loosely paraphrase Matthew 5:46, "Why is it 'good' to only forgive people who are nice to you? Even Stalin would do that." What's more, the fact that it's possible to make a list of other commandments that are also good to follow is not evidence that the first list was not good - rather, it could be taken as evidence of an innate moral sense, a "knowledge of good and evil", if you will. Other writers have taken that tack much more successfully than me, though, so I'll leave that branch as an exercise for the reader.

We're nearing the end of Simpson's essay, but he still has a few points to make, notably that Christians who actually do show love and compassion "have to disregard huge sections of the Bible to do it". It's true that a lot of the bits of the Bible are incredibly difficult to handle, but simply disregarding them is not productive. No, it makes much more sense to think about them, pray about them, and make decisions based on both them and one's own experience and knowledge.

I know that a number of evangelicals reading this are probably going apopleptic after reading that last sentence, but hear me out - we do read the Bible through the lens of modern experience. We have to, because we read everything through that lens - it's impossible not to, because we are not living in Biblical times. That doesn't mean that we put our own experience above scripture, nor does it mean that we disregard scripture if it doesn't conform to our viewpoints. It does mean that everything we read has to be carefully weighed (1 Thessalonians again) to see how it applies to us today - and, read in context and with care, I strongly suspect that a lot of it is directly applicable.

If you've read this far, you may be surprised to know that on one major point, I do fully agree with Simpson - the Ten Commandments are not the sole basis of our modern society, and should not necessarily be, for example, hung on courthouse walls because of this. They were given to us as a summary of how our relationships should work - first with God, and secondly with others around us. Overarching societal rules are not really addressed there, because they were more specific to the society that had to be ruled at the time, and so were presented throughout Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This emphasis on a relationship with God means that those who are not Christians simply cannot be expected to accept the Commandments - it's like telling a footballer that he should follow the rules for tackling other players as laid down in the laws of rugby. He's not in that context. If we want our footballer to play by the rules of rugby, we have to go to him where he is, and ask him to play rugby instead.

This metaphor is about to break down spectacularly, so I'll leave it where it is. As a Christian, I do believe that the Ten Commandments are a useful and relevant guide to living. I don't think, however, that they are the only rules; nor are they useful unless seen in context. We've been given the ability to speak with God, to think and to act. Let's use all three.

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Wednesday, 28 March 2007

He jumped banana and said cheap meds!

If you look up to the top of the page you'll see the Blogger navbar. Not only is this a useful device from the point of view of telling you that you're on a blog run by Blogger (admittedly, not really tricky to work out), it also has the "Next Blog" button which can direct you to practically anything. When I clicked it just now, for instance, I ended up here.

It took me a while to work out just what it was, but I think it's using the same technology that spammers use to disguise their emails and get them into your inbox. Quite why anyone would look at an email and say "oh, look, meaningless gibberish. Ooh, but it's also offering me cheap Viagra, I'll buy some" is beyond me, but presumably it's a successful enough business model that peopel still do it. I can only assume that this blog is doing the same thing, so that people like me can stumble across it (or possibly other spammers can leave links to it elsewhere, so it looks like nothing more than a normal blog) and notice the links saying "cheap cialis" and "buy viagra" standing out from the randomly-strung-together words.

The funny thing is that the sentences padding out the "blog entries" are complete nonsense, but very grammatical nonsense. It's like a computer suddenly contracted Wernicke's Aphasia. In its own weird way, it's almost like poetry. Really bad poetry, admittedly, perhaps the kind of poetry that self-important postmodern poets would come up with after a few too many pills, but it still makes for interesting reading.

Just don't read it too closely...I'm not sure where the words came from, but it's possibly not the most pleasant of sources...

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Monday, 26 March 2007

It is brilliant work, but...another way to waste time?

One of the wonders of the internet (and of not having a vast amount to do, now that it's the holidays) is that it's possible to stumble across some amazing creative work that people have put online. Another wonder of the internet is that some people have decided to take advantage of this new distribution medium, even if their work is very definitely paper-based.

In particular, I'm referring to Girl Genius, a webcomic produced by Phil and Kaja Foglio. The Foglios have done a lot of illustration work in the past (they drew the art on several Magic: The Gathering cards, earning them a place in both the most successful and most horrifically nerdy game of all time), and in fact were producing Girl Genius as an actual comic book for some considerable time before making the jump to the web. The reason that the Foglios made the switch, according to Websnark, was that they reckoned they could build an audience much more effectively by giving away their work for free in an online format and selling print collections off the back of that.

Now, I will freely admit that this sounds like a fairly unlikely business model. The fact that it's so easy to set up a webcomic strongly suggests that the quality of the strip is going to suffer if its competition is suddenly "experimental" strips made in MS Paint or the fifty thousand "hilariously mismatched college room-mates" strips that you can find all too easily. What's more, the standard of work that you find in a lot of comic books (well, from what I've seen, anyway - I don't actually buy comic books, so this isn't really an authoritative opinion) suggests that people buy the next issue because they want to find out what happens next, meaning that collections are rather less likely to sell.

If people held such reservations, they were unfounded in this case. The Foglios have done really pretty well out of their new venture. Why? Because their comic is absolutely freaking awesome. The artwork is of a standard that just blows you out of the water. This is especially noticeable when restrictions are placed on it, to the extent that even though the colour strips are utterly superb, I was disappointed when they moved away from the incredible things that could be done with just black and white. (And, interestingly, things look a lot better when the comic moves effectively back into monotone.)

Seriously, I cannot believe that this comic is produced at a rate of three full pages a week. Look at a fairly typical page of Questionable Content, which is generally regarded as having very good artwork (and updates 5 times a week). Yeah, it's nice to look at, but it's just not in the same league. Then if you look at something which is much more story-driven, like Sluggy Freelance, the artwork is definitely taking a back seat to the story (which it has to, given the 6 days a week update schedule), although Pete Abrams can certainly handle a pencil pretty well when the occasion demands.

Of course, conversely, with so much time being spent on the artwork, it's natural that the story won't be quite as good. Girl Genius's storyline isn't bad, by any stretch of the imagination - indeed, there's some really interesting storytelling devices being used, such as the fact that the villains of the piece are multi-layered, intelligent creations who only sometimes remind you that they are also the villains for a reason - but there are also problems. For example, although I'm not about to link to specific story-spoiling strips, there have been deaths, both of very obvious protagonists and possible antagonists, which were apparently meant to elicit an emotional reaction in the audience. The pacing and the experience we'd had with these characters, however, meant that what was actually experienced didn't go much beyond "meh, that's sad". One feels that a little more concentration on the storyline would pay dividends.

That said, I must say, this strip is still rapidly becoming one of my favourites, and will be in my collection of RSS feeds pretty much as soon as I've finished reading the archives. It's also one of the very few webcomics I've seen that I would really like to have in dead-tree format, just to look at it again. Just so long as I can avoid spending ages going through the archives when I'm supposed to be working.

(Take a guess as to how likely that is.)

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Sunday, 25 March 2007

Picture of the Week: #12



It may be a duplicate of thousands of similar images being posted at this time of year. It may well be the kind of thing that you expect to see titled "The New Life of Spring". It is definitely the kind of photo that my grandmother will look at and go "ahh, that's nice". But it is also most definitely the product of this week, and to be honest, after half a week back at home with work taking a back seat, I think it's really pretty appropriate.

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Saturday, 24 March 2007

Yes, it's a cop-out. Give me a break.

Sadly, I've kind of run out of things that I really find hugely interesting to post about this week. There's a couple of posts that are kind of brewing in the background, but will take a little time (read: will require me to get round to it) before I get there. Luckily, I haven't quite been reduced to Wikipedia's ever-dependable On This Day feature (although I feel that I must wish The Undertaker a happy birthday), though, as I did come across a pretty cool site via the Boing and the Blue: namely, Ficlets.

Ficlets is a collection of short stories written by contributors to the site. And when I say "short stories", I mean seriously short - these things are a maximum of 1024 characters long. Obviously, that doesn't give you much space in which to produce a complete story, although some people manage it; I don't think I could add anything to that one that would make it any better. The twist is that although each story is so short, anyone can add to them, either as a prequel or a sequel, meaning that you can easily end up with an enormous, branching story thread.

Well, theoretically, anyway, as the site's still pretty new. At the time of writing, there's a total of 1313 stories on there (I have no idea in how many threads), but more are being created every day. Moreover, they're all available under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licence, meaning that so long as you credit the author and impose the same restriction on anyone who receives the work, you can do what you like with them. So, theoretically at least, you could use a random number generator to select a random story, then do that a couple of times more and put the three together as prequel, story and sequel in a kind of Dadaist short story.

Like so.

(Highlight the blank line between the paragraphs to see the author credit for that paragraph)

It’s 7AM and the sun it just starting to peek through the horizon.
“This is going to be a great day,” I think to myself.
Looking down at my coffee mug, I realize my coffee isn’t black—it’s clear.
I look over at the coffee machine and am shocked with fright when I realize I had poured gasoline in my cup.
"Suspense" by RyanMorrisB
"It’s mine! The doll was mine to begin with. " Morgan screached, clutching an old doll tightly to her. Jessie picked up her skirts and sprinted after her little sister.
A sea crusted old man sat at the bar and vaguely wondered why the bar wench was argueing over an old tattered doll with a child instead of serving him more mead. It was a nasty looking old thing with one eye hanging by a thread and more patches than he could count.
Jessie managed to wrestle the doll from Morgan. She wrapped her hand around the neck of the doll and pulled. Out from the abused doll’s stomach came a dagger. Jessie got a better grip of the handle through the doll’s head.
"The doll was mine before it was yours, and the dagger will always be mine.”
"The Wench's Prize" by Rieb7
Part of the problem lies with availability. I mean, how many virgin women are there these days?
I could go for the younger ones of course, the teenagers, perhaps even pre-teens and babes. But, darn it, they’re only a nibble. I don’t need a snack, I need a full blown meal and, Hell, there ain’t a lot of them walking around.
I’ve tried everywhere.
African’s are too chewy and stringy; folk in the Middle East blow up when I eat them. Europeans aren’t much better, being all oily and greasy. Eating a good French woman is akin to drinking garlic flavored olive oil and so very few are virgins. Doesn’t settle too well on the stomach, these non-virgins.
I tried sticking with vegetarians for a while, but all those beans gave me chronic gas. Had to evacuate the cave for a couple months to let it air out.
I guess I’m going to have to give up the diet for now. Ah, sorry about that, that’s just my stomach rumbling.
Now, tell me about yourself. How did you find this cave?
Are you a virgin by any chance?
"Trouble With Diets" by SJHundak

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Sunday, 18 March 2007

Picture of the Week: #11

Back on time this week for the PotW, and really, there's only one event that it could have come from.



That's the Sheldonian Theatre, on Broad Street in Oxford. The more eagle-eyed among you will also have noticed the large amount of fire present in the photo; that's because Luminox was taking place. This was nominally a celebration of 1,000 years of Oxfordshire, but in practice was actually an excuse for a French art group and thousands of tourists to let out their inner pyromaniacs and go "ooh, it's all on fire".

It was a bit weird, really. They were obviously going for a "folk" kind of feel overall (probably trying to echo pagan winter festivals), but it certainly wasn't English folk traditions. The music was a mix of Japanese, Eastern European and general beady ethnic, the fire installations were part Wicker Man and part neo-Industrial Revolution steampunk, and some bits of it brought the fires of Isengard to mind more than anything else. It was great fun though, I hope they do something this weird again soon.

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Friday, 16 March 2007

Here's what I'm gonna do, Frank...

OK, I was planning on writing something thoughtful and possibly theological here today, but then Weebl's Stuff came up with the most brilliant cartoon ever.

The Everyday Happenings of Weebl and sometimes Weebl's friend Bob is something of an acquired taste, and there's a number of offerings in that particular series that I wouldn't recommend to anyone who is even slightly less than incredibly amused by cheap toilet humour. Every now and again, though, they get it exactly right. If you've ever seen an episode of CSI Miami, or even if you haven't and want to get a pretty much perfect idea of what one is like, click here, sit back, and enjoy.

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Wednesday, 14 March 2007

But it does look very pretty...

The other day, I was heading up to London (en route to Wales), so I did the usual student thing of taking a stupidly cheap coach. The coach in this case was the Oxford Tube, which is really rather good - £7 student return after 3pm, which is, bizarrely, rather cheaper than buying a single - although it does take quite a while. This isn't a problem, as I can listen to music or audiobooks (of which there are some very entertaining free ones available - try How To Succeed In Evil in bite-sized podcast form).

What's more, the route takes you along the M40. Motorways as a whole aren't very pretty, but there's a couple of bits on this one - the cutting where you will always see at least a couple of red kites soaring overhead, for one - which do look really good. In this case, the sun was low in the sky, and as the coach came out of the low hills and started onto the plains, with more hills in the distance, beautiful farmland all around, and golden light streaming over everything and basically making the whole scene look like a postcard, I sighed inwardly and thought "That really is a beautiful sight."

Which was immediately followed by the thought that I always have in situations like that: "So why did they go and build a thwacking great motorway through the middle of it?"

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Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Picture of the Week: #10

Another late post, but there's a good reason this time - I was in a different country for most of the weekend. Well, all right, a different nation. Oh, fine, I was in Wales. Happy now?


I took that on the bridge over the River Dee, which makes up the border between England and Wales at that particular point. Which means that it would probably be difficult to say exactly in which of the two I was standing. Either way, it's beautiful scenery around there, and sunset always makes things look nicer too.

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Thursday, 8 March 2007

No, you see, this is part of my research. Into, err, the psychological effect of games.

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, I've been ludicrously busy. Not quite so busy, though, that I haven't had time to keep up with the wonders of the Internet. Just in case you find yourself without much to do, I strongly recommend pointing your browser in the direction of Crazy Monkey Games. They have a lot of extremely fun stuff to play with (if you're looking for 30 seconds' distraction, Curveball is absolutely awesome), but the best part is less the gameplay aspect, and more the brilliant design you can find.

In particular, I'm referring to Wink. If you've never played Wink, go and play for a few minutes right now - you can save your game and go back to it if you really have to be doing other things. It's a cartoony sneak-em-up, where the emphasis is very much on stealth. It has to be, really, given that you start the game outside a large castle with no weapons at all. The whole game, then, involves tiptoeing through shadows, crawling along the ceiling, attacking without being seen, and generally being as ninjalike as you can.

Wink is pretty much brilliant in all its forms. The controls page - always incredibly important if you don't want players to give up in disgust 30 seconds into your game - is well laid out and clear, while not giving away everything, and the controls themselves are superb, allowing you to access every single control key without moving your hands. The graphics design is extremely cute, while still being undoubtedly ninjalike (the game's quite surprisingly violent in some aspects), while the sound design is just inspired. I defy you not to start giggling the first time you hear the "tiptoe while hiding in shadows" sound effect.

The weapons, too, are very entertaining (the huge grin you'll get when you first try out a lightning staff makes the whole game worthwhile, regardless of any other factors), and the storyline is tongue-in-cheek and amusingly narrated. If there are any problems with the game, they have to centre on its being too easy, and really a bit too short.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and do the work that I should have been doing while I was finding all the hidden areas...

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Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Picture of the Week: #9

I know it's a bit late, but no matter (I did at least take it last week): this instalment of the PotW comes from Cafe Opium on Sunday evening.

Very nice restaurant, that - the d├ęcor looks very striking, doesn't it? - although the waitresses do have a tendency to make certain assumptions about you based on what you look like. For example:

Me: I'd like that, please.
Her: I recommend that you change your mind.
Me: Eh?
Her: You wouldn't like it.
Me: But...
Her: Hardly anyone likes that. Try something else.

Well, all right, so it wasn't quite like that, but not far off. I do rather strongly suspect, though, that if I was Asian I wouldn't have got that reaction...

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Thursday, 1 March 2007

The Logic Of Frustration (or, Why Everything Is Microsoft's Fault)

Observation: The code for the last bit of my research project has not yet been debugged and might not work.

Deductions:

  1. If I had got into the department before it closed, I would have been able to debug the code.
  2. If I had reached the department one minute earlier than I did, I would have got in.
  3. If I had not had to wait at the traffic lights, I would have reached the department at least one minute earlier than I did.
  4. If I had reached the traffic lights 30 seconds earlier, I would not have had to wait.
  5. If I had left the house 30 seconds earlier, I would have reached the traffic lights 30 seconds earlier.
  6. If I had not had a brief instant messenger conversation with one of my friends telling her that I couldn't talk as I was about to leave the house, I would have left the house at least 30 seconds earlier.
  7. If I had not had an IM client running in the first place, I would not have had that conversation.
  8. If I had not wanted to check my Hotmail account, I would not have needed to start an IM client.
  9. If Microsoft did not offer Hotmail accounts, I would not have one.
Conclusion: If the last bit of my research project doesn't work, it's Microsoft's fault.

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