Friday, 4 May 2018

The Parable of the Good Scousers

On one occasion, an expert in the law wrote on Twitter: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?”, an ethicist replied. “How do you read it?”

The lawyer answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, “Do what is in your neighbour's best interest.”

“You have answered correctly,” the ethicist replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked the ethicist, “What is in my neighbour's best interests?”

The ethicist answered, in a threaded tweet:

A child was attacked on the side of the road and beaten within an inch of his life. He was losing blood fast. He had spinal damage that would leave him quadriplegic. He probably had brain damage. He was gasping for breath. 1/n

A doctor walking past spotted the child. She saw the quality of life the child would have, and decided that the child would be better off dead. She left the child, and continued walking down the road. 2/n

A judge spotted the doctor as she walked away from the scene and hurried over. He asked the doctor why she left the child alone and the doctor explained - there's no hope of recovery, his quality of life will be appalling. He should be left to die. 3/n

The judge agreed, and walked off with the doctor. 4/n

Then a group came by - the child's parents. A journalist. A lawyer or two. Some were Catholics, some were atheists, some were protestants. Some were pro-life. Worst of all, some of them weren't even middle class. 5/n

They saw the child and hurried over. They tried to stop the bleeding. They made arrangements to take him to a hospital. 6/n

But the doctor and the judge noticed what was going on. They ordered the group to stop helping the child. They called the police, who came along immediately to stop him being taken to the hospital. 7/n

The group was stunned - some called friends to form a protest. Some called an ambulance to come and care for the child. Some made legal efforts to get the police to stand down, and to allow the ambulance through. 8/n

They prayed. 9/n

They tried everything they could to save the child. 10/n

But it was in vain. The harder they tried, the more the judge, doctor and police resisted. They said that they were only acting in the extraordinary little child's best interests. They suggested that the parents were purely acting out of uncontrollable grief, that the protesters were a mob and that the lawyers were publicity seekers. 11/n

(Divide and conquer.) 12/n

All this time, the child was surviving better than could possibly have been imagined. 13/n

I ask you, which of these acted in the child's best interest? 14/14

He that has ears to hear, let him hear.

Friday, 30 March 2018

The fastest-improving chess player in the world?

Back in December, I woke up on a day off work, preparing to visit the London Chess Classic - my first time spectating at a super-GM chess tournament. I was expecting to see some top-level chess, but I wasn't ready for the news of a breakthrough in chess computing courtesy of Google: AlphaZero.

The Google-owned DeepMind team had put their absurdly powerful AI computing power onto the game of chess. And with that absurd computing power, had managed in a matter of hours to become the best chess player ever.

Lots of people didn't think that AI, neural networks would be very good at chess. We already had very powerful chess engines, powerful enough to beat any human with one second/move on a mobile phone. But they work by assessing millions of positions using human heuristics - counting up the point value of the pieces, the squares they're on etc. AlphaZero, on the other hand, was told only the rules of the game, and given a process to play millions of games against itself and figure out how to win by itself.

An impressive technological achievement but what was even more exciting were the example games given. Several of the games had beautiful, long-term positional sacrifices from AlphaZero. The kind of moves swashbuckling grandmasters used to play, before computer engines told them they didn't work.

There was only one drawback. No one got to play against AlphaZero. It was all hidden away in Google laboratories, only 20 games released, and there was no opportunity to have a go ourselves.

Enter Leela Chess Zero. Dedicated amateurs have recreated the kind of system that AlphaZero used - except free, open source, and reliant on solely on volunteers, their expertise and their computing power (and energy bills!).

You can play a version of it right now.

It's not as strong as AlphaZero yet. But estimates suggest that within a year or so, it could be competitive. In the little time since it has been launched, it's played about 1.5 million games against itself, all on people's computers. And it's already getting to around 2000 ELO strength - better than most amateur/club players.

This is a really exciting project and well worth dedicating a bit of computing power to, if you like chess or AI. You can find out how to contribute here and join the active discord channel here.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

My favourite music of 2017

I'm often slow to pick up on music. I'm normally a few years behind, although sometimes a few years ahead.

These are my favourite albums of 2017 - but none of them were released in 2017. But they're albums that I have come to love this year. The first of which is truly astounding...

1) Steven Wilson: Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)

(Warning - this video is very emotional, contains deeply sad themes and will make you cry)

Steven Wilson is arguably the biggest English musician that hardly anyone in England's heard of. Through his work in Porcupine Tree and his solo work, he's a big deal in the progressive rock scene worldwide.

I have listened to bits and pieces of his over the years and I've never really got the hype. And, to be honest, I still don't. I've been listening to lots of his albums, including The Raven... and To the Bone which are both good albums, with some great moments. But Hand Cannot Erase is simply brilliant.

It contains disparate elements - spoken word electronica and pop rock mixed in with the more progressive elements. It's not music that you'd expect to work together but it really does. The overall theme of the album pulls it together and it has a number of truly spine-tingling moments.

This album will prove itself over however many listens you give it. It's top 5 of all the music I know and love.

2) Thank You Scientist: Stranger Heads Prevail (2016)

I discovered this album (and band) via a thread on Reddit. I had read through the thread, specifically looking to see if anyone had recommended Hand. Cannot. Erase. -  so when I saw that album with a lot of upvotes I began to trust the opinions of the Reddit hivemind. So while doing late night Christmas shopping, I discovered the band and bought this album.

This is genre-busting music. It's funk one second, prog metal the next. Then it's suddenly modal jazz, followed by insanely catchy pop rock. It's drums, bass, guitar, violin, trumpet and tenor sax, in equal measures, all of whom can really play.

The result is so energetic, so fresh and so enjoyable I can't help but grin and feel motivated when listening. The guys in the band clearly don't take themselves seriously but their music is certainly holds up to scrutiny.

3) Haken - Affinity

I finally got listening to some other under-famous English musicians this year. I enjoyed The Mountain but the retro-80s-sci-fi aesthetic of Affinity appeals to me greatly.

The guys in the band can play and they have the djenty edge I enjoy as a guilty pleasure. Again, they don't take themselves too seriously and make music that's fun and innovative.

I will grant that their singer is nothing special (besides a strange stage presence in the above video), but I'm totally over that.

If you want to start the new year the right way, start the video below at 23:54:00 tonight.

Friday, 21 July 2017

May Christians eat black pudding?

Photo by Grinner, CC BY-SA 3.0
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this. 

I'd also be interested to hear if, as a Christian, you've ever genuinely considered the question.

Before I get to the reasons you might want to think about it, here are two opinions I'm not going to consider at all:

  1. God doesn't exist, so it doesn't matter anyway. This is both untrue and off topic.
  2. God never cares about what people eat. You may argue that's true now but there certainly at least dietary laws in the Old Testament. It is not beyond God to care about what we put in our bodies.

So why might eating black pudding be forbidden for the Christian?

  1. Black pudding is a kind of sausage, particularly popular in the north of England and Scotland. The reason I'm bringing this up is that it is made, in part, from pork blood.
  2. Pork is clearly declared allowable for Christians (including Jewish Christians) to eat, in Peter's vision (Acts 10). This is part of what might be called the ceremonial law of Israel (in the law revealed to Moses), which dealt particularly with setting the Israelites apart from the nations around them. As gentiles and Jewish new testament believers are united into one new humanity (the Church), these clean/unclean distinctions no longer exist.
  3. Restrictions on eating blood, however, do not solely belong to the ceremonial law. In Genesis 9, Noah is, for the first time, allowed to kill and eat animals - even ones that would later become unclean. Yet God bans him from eating animals with 'the lifeblood' in them.
  4. In Acts 15, the first Christian council, gentiles are recognised as belonging to the Church in the way I point out above. But they are specifically banned from eating blood (amongst other things).
  5. The early Church (post Bible times) seemed to follow this command as well.
Now - there are possible counter-arguments, which I won't go into. But this may be an interesting case study in how you think about the requirements of being a Christian, and how (if at all) you approach the task of living out your faith.

I'll come out as saying that I think the answer is 'no' - Christians ought not to eat black pudding or anything else with the lifeblood in it. Small, residual amounts of blood (e.g. blood left in capillaries) is a different matter (this is hinted at in the Bible) - I'm talking about the large quantities pumping round arteries and veins.

I do like the food - but I haven't bought or eaten it since.

I'd be really interested to know:

a) if, as a Christian, you've ever considered this
and b) if so, what was your conclusion (and reasoning).

Show of hands in the comments?

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Polling day predictions

Since I’m never short of opinions, including political, I’m going to put down in writing a few predictions for the 2017 General Election. This is based on a combination of polling, feel and a few other observations. I’ve numbered each actual prediction below for ease of reference in the future (and accountability).

Conservative majority (1)


Very difficult to predict. The last polls from each company show between a 1-12% Conservative lead. I believe there are two factors at play:

·      Momentum-type activists lying to/playing the pollsters. This has all but been confirmed, and I expect more will come out about this in the coming weeks(2). Some polling companies have shown a frankly ridiculous youth turnout expectation – I expect this is from young activists signing up to answer surveys and skewing results.
·      Youth turnout more generally. Corbyn, with his far-left positioning, is a lot more appealing to many young voters (who, incidentally, also don’t remember the troubles). I believe there will be a larger youth turnout.

So I don’t think that the ICM-style approach of assuming the same youth turnout as previously holds this time around(3). But I do think it’s closer to the truth than the 80%+ turnout others are showing. For me, I’m going to stick with somewhere in the middle and predict a 7% national vote win for Tories (e.g. 42% Conservative, 35% Labour)(4).

However – and this is a big point – I expect Corbyn to get votes where they don’t really count(5). As disappointing as May’s campaign has been, it has spoken to the types of people who will win marginal constituencies for her – particularly with the expected collapse of the UKIP vote.

In my view, the best indicator for this is where the battle buses have been going. Corbyn’s stayed in safe Labour territory while May has been turning up in Labour target seats around the 30s. That suggests that their private marginal polling is saying these are winnable seats.

Based largely on that dynamic, I’m going to go with around a 60 seat majority (6) for the Conservatives when all is said and done. I’d expect them to lose a few seats, net, to the Lib Dems (largely based on remain/leave dynamics)(7), but pick up a few in Scotland(8). So the majority of wins will come in blue/red marginals(9).

Having said that, there are a number of factors at play and if anyone claims to actually know what's going to happen, they're lying to you (even if they turn out to be right).


I think Caroline Lucas will cling on to her seat(10), due largely to her name being known/popularity. The greens will haemorrhage votes to Labour, nationwide, but I don’t think that will happen so much in Brighton.

UKIP will do better than their polling suggests (5%) (11). Nowhere near well enough to win a seat, but I’m going to say 7% for them(11a). They are the only party clearly offering an alternative response to the recent terror attacks and they will pick up off-the-radar votes.

Tim Farron will be the only leader to step down (12) – due to disappointing progress from last time’s significant losses. This is a bit bolder, and my hardest prediction to make. But Corbyn will cling on, justified by a decent national vote share (12a), May will be PM (12b), UKIP can’t have another leadership campaign just yet (12c) and the various regional groups won’t see enough change to compel change. The SNP is the only one I’m unsure of there but I don’t understand the dynamics well enough.

All my friends on social media will maintain their dignity(13), and none of them will post despairing messages like ‘Britain – how could you?’(14) or just crying emojis(15). No one will blame Rupert Murdoch’s ‘disgraceful smears’(16), no one will blame older people for overruling the younger generation’s choices(17), and no one will complain about our unfair FPTP electoral system (18).

On second thoughts, I’m not so sure about that last paragraph.

Friday, 26 May 2017

A Christian Prayer for ISIS

This is not the only prayer that can be prayed for them, but it is a valid one, from Psalm 58:
Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! 
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. 
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun. 
Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away. 
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked. 
Then people will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”

NB: Romans 12:19

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Why secular culture can't deal with acts of terrorism

The Manchester attack was the latest act of terrorism to shock us in its sheer barbarity. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and everyone else caught up in the chaos caused by this pathetic act.

We do also have to try to understand and deal with what has happened, though. There is no good time to do this. Waiting a day, a month or even years will never be enough to distance whatever is written from the pain caused by such terrorism. Children have been lost, and will be missing as long as those who knew and loved them live.

A title like that is also going to get me into trouble. I'm talking about a vast number of people, of all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs and in doing so, I'm going to make broad generalisations - it is impossible not to when assessing large groups. There will be many exceptions to the points I make. And I do not judge those who fit my description. I want to hold out an alternative to the culture they are living and breathing.

So here are three problems with current western culture - specifically, atheistic, postmodern, secular culture - when it tries to respond to these sorts of events.

1. It can't account for evil

The vast majority of people in the UK are, functionally, atheists. They may be cultural Christians, they may technically be deists, or pantheists but for regular day-to-day life, they act as atheists. We've been persuaded that we are nothing but biological machines, in charge of our own lives and responsible for creating the meaning and purpose in our lives.

One critical weakness with this position is that there is no objective source for morality, for right and wrong. If we are all meant to create the meaning and value in our own lives and to pursue our dreams, those dreams will inevitably clash with other people's dreams. Your values will clash with other people's values and you will have no objective way to determine who's right. You may sign up to a particular moral code but why should anyone else?

Yet, when something horrific like this happens, we can't help but deny our moral relativism. We must say that it is wrong. We can't help using words like 'evil'. 'Misguided' or 'uneducated' or 'unfortunate' just won't do as words to describe these actions. There is no room to make excuses for the perpetrator(s) of these attacks.

The reality of objective morality - found in God's revelation (general and special) - leaks out at such moments. Terrorists are wrong - they're not merely choosing different ethical codes to us. Our culture cannot make sense of this.

2. It can't handle suffering

The suffering at such times as these is very real, and very severe. Thinking about my kids I can only imagine how horrific it would be to lose them in such circumstances. Where is God in such situations? How long, O Lord?

People think that Christians are on the back foot when it comes to suffering. Why would God allow something so terrible to happen? This is a very real question, which the Bible very much encourages Christians to grapple with. The book of Job, many Psalms, Lamentations and many other parts of the Bible work through these issues. This is why many Christians are tremendous examples of enduring through bereavement, horrible illness and other kinds of suffering.

I'm not here to give trite answers, and the way in which the Bible answers these questions is as important as the answers themselves. But, briefly, suffering is personal (it is happening to real, significant persons), purposeful (it ultimately achieves good), temporary (it will one day end), and God promises to be present in our sufferings to help. Compare that to some vague wishy-hopey spirituality or the cold determinism of consistent atheism ("you're just a bunch of cells, get over it”). 

Again, people's better instincts come out at such times as these. People who live otherwise faithless lives offer their prayers for the victims. We have compassion towards those affected, not because it benefits us but because we recognise them as God’s image-bearers. Secular culture cannot account for this.

3. It doesn't understand religious motivation

We are all baffled at how someone can attack children in the way that happened in Manchester. But many in our culture can’t believe that genuine religious conviction could possibly lead to such an atrocity. Many can’t even imagine why someone would ever die for their religion, let alone kill for it.

This is secularism’s misunderstanding of the nature of religion. Secularism argues for a sort of safe space in society where everyone drops their religious reasoning and motivation, in order to build a society where we can all get along.

It sounds like a very appealing and reasonable idea until you realise all that it simply isn’t compatible with many belief systems. Islam makes specific claims about how society should be formed. Jesus Christ claims to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords – a political claim. Such beliefs do not fit into the secular model of religious neutrality in public life.

Secularism doesn’t understand this. And as its influence has grown in the UK, there has been a diminishing understanding of centrality of religion in believer’s lives. Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience make no sense to secularism, because secularism believes that religion is an optional extra that can be tacked onto the side of an otherwise secular life.

Christianity (and religion as a whole), to secularism, is a hobby, like going to the gym or playing bridge. It’s inconceivable to secularist culture, that someone would have such belief in their religion that it would affect every area of their life. That holds true for genuine Christians, who are punished for being consistently Christian in the workplace, as well as for Islamists, who believe that violent Jihad, including suicide bombings, is a legitimate means to advance the Caliphate.

Every conceivable motivation has been suggested for such attacks: grievances with foreign policy, trouble finding a romantic partner, getting high on marijuana, famelust – even climate change. For a lot of commentators and politicians, the idea that allegiance to God (or, in reality, false gods) could be the predominant motivating factor is inconceivable. Again, secularist assumptions are stopping people from naming the problem, which means they will also give the wrong answers.

Secular culture can’t account for these realities. As these sorts of attacks inevitably continue, people will grow increasingly tired of secularism’s answers. I hope and pray that they will turn to the Christian answer – which is both true and beautiful.