Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Does Anyone Actually Believe in God?

I believe in the Inland Revenue.

I hate the very idea of involuntary taxation. I think that collaboration with it is a form of partial slavery.

I am very deeply sceptical about the uses to which my ex-money is put. There are certain things which need to be done by the state. There are certain things the state does well. But most of the money the state takes from me without my consent seems to be pissed up the wall on rubbish.

Fully fifty percent of everything that is done in England is done because the state compels it.

As a child, I was a communist. I would have thought, then, that putting half the population of England into slavery 'for their own good' was taking things a bit far.

I am not a communist any more, and yet I pay my taxes. I have not ever committed the slightest tiny tax fraud, not even claiming lunch on expenses, even though I would feel morally justified. In fact I would feel that I was striking a tiny blow for freedom.

But I believe in the Inland Revenue. If you do that sort of thing and get caught then they will make your life hellish for many years. It is not even slightly worth it, even though the chances of getting caught are tiny.

And heaven help you if you're caught in a big fraud. You can hear the rubber gloves being pulled on now.

I salute the heroes who have suffered incarceration, which is torture, in the cause of freedom.

And yet I will not be joining them.

Because I believe in the Inland Revenue.

If I believed in God, as I remember from school, there would be at least two things that I should do.

I should turn the other cheek if attacked. (What a disgusting doctrine.)

I should give all my money to the poor. Even if I were poor myself. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

If I believed in God, I would believe in a power that was aware of my every action, and which would set fire to me for all eternity if I failed to live up to His standards.

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The bit in the bright red italics seems important.

I would find God a lot more scary than I find the Inland Revenue. I would probably go mad with terror. Certainly I would examine every tiny cryptic hint that God had ever given as to what I was supposed to do with my life, and I would do it diligently. If I believed in God the same way that I believe in the Inland Revenue.

I never heard that the Bible said that it was important to go to Church, which Christians do a lot. But it's probably not forbidden either. Probably they like the singing and the company. I would love to have some friends to sing with on a Sunday morning.

But the central messages of Christianity are non-violence, and compassion for the poor.

There are people starving. There are children dying, who could be saved with money that people who say they believe in God spend on television licences.

I do nothing about this. That is because, although I think that God might exist, I think that the chances of that are somewhere below the chances of me accidentally catching fire for all eternity. And I will not multiply an infinitesimal chance by an infinite amount of pain and act on that basis, because that doesn't work if there's more than one unlikely painful thing.

If I thought there was a 1% chance of God existing, I would become a missionary. And I would swear a vow of poverty, and I would devote my life to helping the poor, and I would never hurt anyone even if they were attacking my mother.

Because nothing anyone could do to me or my mother would remotely compare with eternal torture. In my mind or hers.

So it seems to me that the fact that I do not do these things is an irrefutable proof that I do not believe in even the tiniest chance of the existence of God.

Oooh, I have just written a sermon. I wonder if I am doing the Lord's work in spite of myself?

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Leopard (film)

This is a very beautiful film.
The sets, the landscapes, the costumes, the crowd scenes, are all immaculately beautiful and sumptuously expensive looking.
Claudia Cardinale plays a principal character. She was so lovely. No one was more beautiful than she was.
The Leopard himself is Burt Lancaster. A very good looking man indeed. His burning blue eyes drip charisma.
Such wonderful actors. Such beautiful acting. And it's in Italian, the most beautiful of all the European languages.

I have never seen a film so beautiful. It goes on for hours. It must have cost a fortune. I wonder what it was about? Whatever it was, it must have been really important to someone.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Secrets in their Eyes (film)

Brilliant, heartwarming, disturbing. Go and see it if you can.

The Girl who Played with Fire (film)

After the excellent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was disappointed with this load of tedious piffle.

The film opens with two mechanical rapes and an uninspired lesbian sex scene in the first ten minutes.

After that there are some car chases or something. I wasn't really paying attention.

I suppose that there might have been some sort of story that the film makers were failing to tell, but I'm damned if I'm wading through another hundredweight of Larsson's translator's telephone directory prose to find out.

I don't know whether to count this as the sixth film that I've walked out of. It was more that as it seemed to be building to some sort of dreary climax I realised that I needed a smoke more than I needed to know how it ended.

As I was walking home in the rain some cunt driving a tin hearse at forty miles an hour down Sidney Street soaked me from the waist down in gutter water. I was rather grateful. It was the first interesting thing that had happened for hours.

Be Of Good Comfort, Master Ridley

Last week, my grandfather's ring broke. I have worn it on the second finger of my right hand all my life. I'm told it can't be repaired without removing most of the original metal, and I don't want them to do that, so I'll keep the fragments in a box until I can find a goldsmith who can make it whole again.

When I was about sixteen, and my grandfather was beginning his long death, he gave me the ring he had worn all his life, and I have always treasured it as a physical connection to a man I loved.

At about the same time, I first travelled abroad alone.

My family had gone on holiday to the north of the Netherlands, to see the broad flats of the land reclaimed from the Zuider Zee.

It was a wonderful holiday, with marshes and birds and windmills and cycle trips, but I wanted to see Amsterdam, with its promises of drugs and sex and freedom, and I wanted to be there for the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

And so when it came time to go home, I announced that I would hitch-hike home via Amsterdam and Belgium to Calais and the ferry. I had hitched in England before, but I'd never been alone abroad before.

My parents weren't enthusiastic, but they had little control over me by then. I did what I wanted to and no one could tell me anything, because I already knew it all.

Amsterdam was wonderful. Bars that sold beautiful lager that was nothing like the filth they sold in England in those days. Coffee shops where they sold marijuana to smoke while you played chess and drank tea. And the women. Oh the women...

I had almost no money, and couldn't afford anywhere to stay, so I slept in public parks.

Lots of people did in those days, and there were always little camps of backpackers. Sometimes we had fires and people brought out guitars and sang. I sang too.

One night, cruising from bar to bar I met an Italian man. We started to buy each other drinks, and he had some cocaine, and we had a very pleasant evening talking about where we were from, and what it had been like to grow up in our home countries.

He was half gypsy. His father had been a travelling man, and had got his mother pregnant and then disappeared. He'd only ever seen photographs of his father until he was twenty-two.

And then, on the day that he graduated from university, his father appeared at his graduation ceremony. They'd made eye contact as he was up on the stage receiving his degree, but when he came down from the vice-chancellor's dais, his father had gone.

Luca had felt the call of the wild.

During the evening, we met a French boy, another travelling student, and we combined our resources and our stories. It was a fine evening.

When we'd finally exhausted the collective contents of our pockets, I showed them my favourite park, just out of the centre of town. It was quiet and had a little river to sleep by, and wasn't overlooked. We got out our sleeping bags and lay down.

As Luca was taking off his outer clothes to get into his sleeping bag, I saw that his arm was covered in scars, from where needles had been.

Even at sixteen I knew that this would mean trouble. You can learn that in Sheffield.

I slept for a couple of hours, and then woke up. The French boy was gone, but Luca was still asleep, and I started to carefully and slowly pack my things into my rucksack, being careful not to make any noise.

As I started to leave, Luca's eyes opened. They were full of suspicion and anger.

"Wait there," he said.

He began to go through his bag. One of the first things he found was a long knife. Not a kitchen knife. One for killing. He had a crazed, desperate look in his eyes, like you do when the hunger is on you.

Inevitably, something was missing from his bag.

I couldn't run. I've never been able to run fast. He'd have caught me easily and stabbed me from behind.

He demanded to look in my bag. He went through it, slowly and methodically examining everything, putting everything that he could use in one pile, and everything else in the other. My jersey, spare shirts and clothes, and the bag itself. He took my father's Blue John cuff-links.

Screaming wouldn't have helped. We were too far away for anyone to come quickly, even if anyone had come.

And then he looked at me, and asked to see the contents of my pockets. What could I do? He had a knife. One of the first things a martial artist learns is never to fight someone with a knife. Even if you have a knife yourself.

He took my wallet and cards. He took my passport. One of the old elegant blue hard-covered British passports that started off with Her Majesty's polite request to render the bearer all possible assistance. I never had one of those again. The police told me that it would have been worth about £200 even before it had been modified.

And then he noticed my grandfather's ring. Granddad was still alive, but it didn't look like he would be for long.

"Give me that," said Luca.

And I knew I should, but I couldn't.

"Listen," I said.

"I'll fight for this. It's family. I'll die for this.

"If you make me fight, you'll probably win. But you might not.

"It's hardly worth anything. Just a tiny piece of cheap gold. You might sell it for 60 guilders at best. The other things you've taken are worth much more and you can have them and you're welcome to them. You need them more than me."

And he looked at me for a long time, and nodded, and walked away.

I wish him luck. I'm sure that his road has been harder than mine.

After he'd gone, the French boy emerged from the trees, where he'd been watching. He was white and shaking with fear.

"Did you take anything from his pack?", I asked him.

"Of course not."

"No", I said. "I didn't think you would have done."

"Would you really have fought him for your ring?"

"Yes. I love my grandfather."

"It's true what they say about you English. You have ice instead of blood."

At the time I didn't think much of that. Of course we have ice in our blood. We won the second world war against impossible odds and our history is full of people who made witty remarks as they were put in cauldrons by cannibals or made desperate last stands.

Later on, when I'd grown up a bit, I realised that people are basically the same all over the world. There's nothing special about us, not nobility or sang-froid or fair play or courage or thoughtfulness.

History is written by the winners, and racism and the confirmation bias does the rest.

Everyone in Europe is descended from the same people. If Alfred the Great has living descendants, then I am one. The same is true of his pig-herder. I claim descent from both if anyone does.

The same is true of William the Conqueror, and Julius Caesar, and Aristotle, and Socrates. I claim
descent from them and from their slaves. And so do you, if any of your ancestors were Europeans. That's how it works.

But now, with my broken ring reminding me of that night a long time ago, I wonder if there is something special about us after all.

Kate Fox, in her wonderful book "Watching the English", tells us convincingly that we are a different, lonely people. That we talk spontaneously and openly to animals and to children, but not to other adults. And that how we talk to children is how normal people in normal countries talk to each other.

And so there is something special about us. Maybe it's the stories that we tell. Maybe it's the way that English men are essentially alone. Screaming doesn't help.

Maybe it's the way that to be a man in England involves remaining calm. Not gushing. Not showing emotions.

You might know a man you drink with every Friday night. You might have done this for twenty years. You might die for each other. This goes without saying, and so it never needs to be said. You may well not know the names of his children. He may well not know when their birthdays are. That's woman's stuff.

And there are the stories.

Captain Oates heading into the snow to die. I am just going outside. I may be some time.

The orchestra on the Titanic playing as the ship went down, as the passengers formed orderly queues for the lifeboats.

In patriarchal, class-ridden 1912, if you were a woman travelling in steerage on the Titanic, you had more chance of life than if you were a rich man in first class. Because the English and American passengers' code of honour said 'women and children first', and they stood in orderly queues waiting for the lifeboats to run out even when they knew that they were about to die in terror and in pain. But they stayed calm. I bet that there were jokes. Sad jokes, but funnier for the waiting horror.

We tell of gallantry and fair play even in war. Surely it is all lies. But they can be self-fulfilling lies.

We remember and celebrate Latimer, about to be burnt at the stake in Oxford with Ridley. Ridley was terrified, and Latimer said:

"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

I can't even remember whether Latimer was a Catholic or a Protestant without looking it up. Surely since he's one of our heroes he was a Protestant, but maybe not. We respect gallantry in our enemies even more than in ourselves.

We remember Rommel and Marshal Ney, and when we remember Rorke's Drift the memory is bittersweet for all the brave Zulu men who died.

I don't imagine that Latimer would have defined himself as Catholic or Protestant. He wouldn't have thought in such terms. It doesn't matter. The beliefs for which he died would be unrecognisable even to modern Anglicans.

He is remembered.

Splitting the Bills in a Shared House (Using Google Spreadsheets)

I like to live in shared houses.

When we were students, it was always some poor sod's responsibility to keep track of household bills, and share them out.

There can also be a sort of weird problem that people feel exploited if they're constantly the one buying the new soap and bog rolls, but these tiny amounts aren't worth the trouble or embarrassment of settling up. This tends to lead to shortages of milk, butter, soap, washing up liquid, dishwasher tablets, etc, etc, and makes it difficult to pay the cleaner.

I have solved these problems, by combining the power of Google and the wisdom of Luca Pacioli. We've used it for a year, and it works really well and is very flexible.

Here's a link to a blank Google spreadsheet for three people sharing a house:

Shared House Accounts for 3 (blank)

Here's an example where Alice Bob and Carol have been using it for a while, so you can see how it works.

Shared House Accounts (Simple)

And here's an example where Alice moves out, Dave moves in, they are all liable for various fractions of various bills, and they use the spreadsheet to remain friends throughout:

Shared House Accounts (Example)

Anissa, Rob, Sarah, Louise, and I used a spreadsheet like this throughout last year and it was great. When people moved in and out we knew exactly how much we owed them or they owed us and could see it was fair. Six months worth of accumulated debts were usually settled with a single bank transfer or handover of cash.

How to use it

Decide which one of you is the most numerate/computer literate (anyone with good O-level maths who has used google docs will do.) From now on I'm talking to them.

Make a copy of my blank spreadsheet, and change your names. If there are more than three of you, you'll need to extend it, which is easy [1]

Try adding some example bills, transfers etc, so you can see how it works. Use the examples as cribs.

Share the spreadsheet, with modify permissions, to everyone in the house. Then show them how to use it and tell them that it's not scary, and that you'll hold their hand when they need it.

[1] If anyone leaves a comment asking for blanks for four or five or six people then I'll make one specially for them.


Just let everyone buy things whenever they're needed, and add their own entries. Then you will always have soap.

Get whoever owes the most at any time to pay the next utility bill. That way you never get too far out of balance and you don't have to settle up between yourselves until someone leaves.

Set the spreadsheet to e-mail you whenever the others make changes so that you can tell they've done sane things that work. Occasionally arty types will put what appear to be random numbers in all the columns, but you can usually figure out what they meant and sort it out. There's a nice version control feature with Google docs, so even if someone really cocks it up you can just rewind and do what they meant to do instead of what they did do.

Advanced Usage

You can also use it for any sorts of payments, favours, expenses shared unequally, two people sharing the cost of something that's for all three of you., etc, etc.
There are formulae in the LIABILITY columns that share everything three ways.

If you want to make an entry that doesn't work like that, just replace the automatically generated numbers
with different numbers.

As long as you make sure that the PAID and LIABILITY numbers add up to the same thing for every entry, it will be fine.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

100 Prisoners, 100 Boxes

Herr Professor Doktor Heinrich von EvilFiend has been removed from his post teaching group theory at Heidelberg and placed in charge of the notorious Schloss Konundrum, an innovative POW camp for Allied Airmen.

One day, he calls in the one hundred prisoners in his charge.

"I have a challenge for you, mein Freunds.

"Zere are one hundred of you. Ze castle administration has assigned you each an identity card with your name on it.

"Zere are, in ze post room, one hundred locked postboxen for ze receipt of Red Cross parcels and letters from home containing files. Again, zey have your names on them.

"Ze guards have placed your identity cards randomly in the postboxen, one card in every box."

He sniggers.

"In accordance wiz der pigeonhole principle. Ha ha ha.

"You will proceed to the post room. One by one, you will enter, and each open fifty boxen, looking for your own card.

"If you find your card, you vill be released into the exercise yard. Ze guards will close all ze boxes, and the next prisoner vill be admitted.

"If you do not find your card, ze game is over for ze day.

"Ze next day, ve play again, but ze random arrangement of the cards will have changed.

"If one day, every one of you without exception manages to find your own card, you will have von ze game. And I vill release from my personal supply a supplementary ration of tea to ze whole camp.

There are brief gasps at the generosity of the offer.

"Ve vill play zis game every day throughout ze month of August.

"If, by ze end of ze month, you have not von ze tea,

He pauses dramatically, and continues:

"You Will All Be Shot."

Wing Commander Francis Moustache-Tips is the first to enter the post room.

Alone, he opens the first fifty boxes. His card is in the thirtieth box he opens, and he is released into the yard. The guards close all the boxes.

Prisoner number two, Air Sergeant Cockney Caricature, opens boxes at random. He finds his card in the twentieth box he opens, and is released into the yard.

Together, they wait for prisoner number 3, Special Operative Angus McCryptanalyst.

But he, and the other prisoners, emerge crestfallen.

"I opened my fifty boxes, Wing Commander, but none of them had my card in it.

The game is over for the day.

That evening, our heroes are sitting round their illegal wireless listening for news from home, drinking hot water with a spot of milk.

Moustache-Tips confesses his despair:

"The way I see it, opening fifty boxes out of one hundred to see if one of them contains your card isn't too different from tossing a coin.

"What are the odds that we can toss a coin and get heads one hundred times in a row, and never get tails?

"I wouldn't like to put money on it, even if I did get thirty-one goes."

They try the experiment, and the results are terrible. In thirty-one tries they never get more than six heads before the coin comes up tails, let alone one hundred.

"We're doomed, aren't we, Wing Commander?", says old Jock.

"I've been thinking.", says McCryptanalyst. "and I think we may have a chance."

A week later, they are all sitting around the wireless with a fine supply of German tea.

Even Herr Professor Doktor von EvilFiend is in a noticeably sunny mood, having finally proved the practical utility of his subject in the so-called real world.

What was McCryptanalyst's idea, and how much of a chance did the gallant airmen have?