Archive for December, 2006

Billboard Heckler – Christian Koans

It’s been a long time between heckles.

Usually when I pick a billboard to talk about, I look for one that has a clear message that I can use as a starting point for a rant. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. This one, from the always-reliable Castle Hill Christadelphians, left me wondering whether they’d put up a Zen koan by mistake:

Consider - fear knocked at the door - faith answered - no one was there...


No one was where? At home? Outside the door? I thought fear was outside the door? Or is “No One” a name? (Third base!) Exactly how many anthropomorphic abstract concepts are there in this lesson?

After I took this photo, Tina and I spent a bit of time trying to decode it. Our current guess is that fear was playing a practical joke on faith by knocking on his (her?) door and running away. We agreed that it would be better if the text of the billboard itself could paint this picture more thoroughly. One suggestion:


Might not be room for that on the billboard though.

On a similar note, from West Ryde Baptist:

Worry is a small trickle of fear that cuts a channel into which everything is drained

So, worry is a small trickle… of fear… hang on, is this a metaphor or not? I could understand if worry was a small trickle of water, that means they’re building some imagery… but what is a trickle of fear? That’s just confusing. And what is this “everything” that is drained into it? I need more information about what’s being drained here. I mean, are problems drained into it? That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? And where does the channel drain to? If anyone can explain this billboard, I’d appreciate it.

Both of these churches are on main roads. Neither of them update their billboard more than once every few weeks. Tens of thousands of people get to read everything that they put up there. If I had that kind of publicity, I’d make sure that what I wrote made some kind of sense. As it is, they’re not exactly inspiring me about the rationality of their religion.


An Irregular Christmas

It’s time for Irregular Webcomic!’s Christmas Strip.

For the record, the Richard Storrs Willis music for It Came Upon the Midnight Clear sounds like this (from the archives of my former life).


Merry Christmas – yeah, you heard me…

Well, it’s about 3 hours to Christmas here in Sydney.

As an atheist, there are a few things I could have said there to avoid mentioning Christ. With a bit of adjustment to the date, I could have substituted Midsummer (not Winter Solstice, we’re in summer down here, although you wouldn’t know it from the rain we got today), Cephalopodmas, Winter-een-mas or Festivus; or I could have skipped it altogether. (Xmas would be an ineffective choice – the letter # has been used to represent Christ almost since New Testament times.)

However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, in Australia at least, Christmas isn’t a particularly Christian thing anymore. It’s a family and gifts and food and wine and holiday thing. Johann Hari makes the point that the materialist taking-over of Christmas is not necessarily a bad thing – and although I reserve judgment on that specifically, the fact that the whole country grinds to a halt for a supposedly Christian holiday and it doesn’t have any significant Christian effect on most people is, on the whole, probably a positive sign.

As in many things, Richard Dawkins sums it up nicely (quoted from here, although I know I’ve read it somewhere else):

So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season. In the same way as many of my friends call themselves Jewish atheists, I acknowledge that I come from Christian cultural roots. I am a post-Christian atheist. So, understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

My thoughts exactly. Merry Christmas everyone.

I’ve taken the next couple of weeks off, and I plan to use it to, among other things, get the “blog regularly” mentality hammered into my head once and for all.

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Over the last year or so, we’ve been cultivating a bit of a herb garden. It’s nothing brilliant, but it’s given us enough basil and mint to be able to keep them off the shopping list.

In that time we’ve killed quite a few plants. Now, if you believe what people who actually know something about plants say, rosemary is a dead simple herb to grow. In fact it should be virtually unkillable.


Our first attempt to grow rosemary failed when Tina decided she needed some of its leaves for a roast. Our garden was left with what could best be described as a rosemary stick. Our second attempt was possibly overwatered (rosemary is supposed to like it dry), and died after getting some kind of white covering that may or may not have been a fungus. Our third attempt appeared to be underwatered – there’s a difference between “liking it dry” and “turning greyish-brown”, apparently. Our fourth attempt was from seeds, which I never saw again after they went into the soil.

Today I planted our fifth attempt. I’m working on a theory that some of the previous ones didn’t have enough room to spread their roots, so this one is in a bigger pot than I think is naturally warranted. I haven’t decided yet whether to give it a bit of welcome-to-your-new-home moisture before leaving it dry. We’ll see.

Updates as they come.

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Credit card obfuscation

As much as I try to make as many purchases as possible using That Intarweb Thingy, there are situations when I have to provide my credit card details over the phone. (No, not that situation.) Whenever I do, I usually take a quick look over my shoulder to check that nobody’s listening. If I’m at work, there are at least half a dozen people within earshot who would probably have my credit card number now if they ever had the desire to take it. At least a couple of times I’ve heard someone else reciting their credit card number, and I always have access to a pen and paper at my desk.

It occurred to me that you could fairly easily use what amounts to a one-time pad to make sure that the only people who know your credit card number are you and the person on the other end of the phone. Basically the operator gives you some random digits, four at a time. You add each digit to the corresponding digit in your credit card number, and tell the result, modulo 10, to the operator.

So, say my credit card number starts with 9108. The operator gives me the random numbers 4, 7, 9, 7. I do a quick bit of mental arithmetic, and come up with 3, 8, 9, 5. Repeat for the rest of the number, and possibly do something similar for the expiry date. The operator subtracts those numbers (or has data entry software that does it automatically), and away we go.

The most obvious problem is that you have to do some mental gymnastics that, even if you happen to be able to do that without clutching your head and moaning, you have a good chance of getting wrong at least once out of 16 times. And if you do it on paper, it defeats the purpose, for the same reason that making people change their passwords so often that they have to write them down defeats the purpose. And it doesn’t really do much about anyone who can get hold of your bank statement, or decides to glance in your wallet, or has access to any of the records held by any of the companies where you’ve used your credit card, or, for that matter, the operator you’ve just gone through this whole process with. But hey, the appearance of security is all that matters, right? That’s how airports work at least.

There are a few simpler variations you could use that, while they don’t have the strength of a one-time pad, introduce enough permutations of possible credit card numbers that it won’t help anyone who’s listening. Most of the time the first 8 or so digits are common between a whole family of cards, so you could cut down the obfuscation to the last 8. You could restrict the range of random numbers, say -2 to 2, to make the arithmetic easier. Or instead of adding mod 10, the operator could ask for the digits in a random order.

Anyway, I’m not expecting this to be something any company would do to make themselves popular with their customers. But maybe they could train their operators to do it if asked, to cater for the more geeky and paranoid among us.

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