Highly Unlikely — The Mark of the Beast Bug

In 1991, amongst a series of theorems about rounding in floating point arithmetic calculations, the author parenthetically noted that rounding a number to 53 significant digits, and then rounding it again to 52 significant digits, might produce a different answer compared to when you do the rounding to 52 digits all in one go. He all but apologised for the parenthesis, noting it was “highly unlikely to affect any practical program adversely.”

19 years and 10 months later a researcher discovered that the “Mark of the Beast Bug” could freeze almost any computer in the world, and that millions of webservers could be taken down by it almost at the touch of a button — because of an error when rounding a very very small number, first to 53 significant digits, and then to 52.

Science and the touch of celebrity fallacy

Science is great, and when something’s great, this often results in enthusiastic proclamation of it as the One True Answer to pretty much anything. Which is unfortunate because science isn’t. Not all true knowledge is scientific knowledge, on the contrary, scientific knowledge is only a small fraction of what we know.

Most of our daily lives run on very un-scientific but still knowledgeable questions and answers, such as ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ and ‘what’s the news this morning?’ These are not questions which can be addressed by a scientific methodology because science is largely about hypothesis and repeatable experiments and there are no repeat experiments for one-off events such as what you were chomping at 8:02 this morning. These questions are answered simply by observing (looking, listening, smelling, etc.), an activity that science crucially depends on but which has been in active use since long before anyone thought of science. They could also be answered by asking someone who knows, which is probably our number one source of knowledge throughout our whole life. But that isn’t at all scientific, even when it’s a scientist whom you’re asking. Even when you’re asking a ‘scientific’ question. But if you go and set up the experiment for yourself, that’s science.

You may be tempted to think that ‘what I ate for breakfast’ can be scientifically analysed by shipping you off to a forensic lab for analysis of your stomach contents. And this is what I mean by the “touch of celebrity” fallacy. Because labs are full of sciencey things like test tubes and white coats and mass spectrometers, we somehow feel that whatever information comes out of such a lab has the aura of science about it; it’s scientifically proven.

This is a mistake.

Yes, a lot of science did go into developing mass spectrometers, and test tubes are often used by scientists. A forensic examination of your stomach is in that sense ‘applied science’, putting to use the body of knowledge acquired by the scientific method. But the experiment of you eating breakfast this morning was a one-off. In that sense the forensic analysis is no more scientific than a mate poking their fingers down your throat so that they can then carefully inspect your stomach contents on the table.

Not all true empirical knowledge is science. Sometimes it’s just stuff you know. I had pancakes for breakfast this morning. I know because I was there.

The Christmas of Politics

The Christmas story is all about politics. Look:

‘Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.’

Let’s translate that a little for the benefit of those of us who don’t live in the 1st century Roman empire:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the lifetime term of office of Herod, president and chief justice, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born the legitimate ruler of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to submit to his goverment.” When president Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the government ministers, chief judges, and lawyers, he inquired of them where the real president was to be born.

Or, from the other end of the political scene, Mary the pregnant teenager proclaims Christmas is about this: “God has sacked the proud and brought down the powerful from their places in the government and the lawcourts, and has exalted the humble; he has given food and more to the starving, and he has sent the rich packing.”

Forgive the loss of poetry but the Good News of Christmas, according to the angel Gabriel, is the coming of a government, a ruler, a judge, who will do it Right. Jesus, rightful ruler of the world. Laws will be just, courts will not cost the earth, and the rich will not shaft the poor.

And so the church that follows Jesus attempts to demonstrate a new society, in which the starving are indeed fed, the poor protected and the weak defended in court.

It is apparent that Jesus’ government doesn’t favour the usual tools of government — armies, lawyers, yearly reams of new legislation, police enforcement. It is more a person-by-person “if you’re following Jesus, then do what he would do” method. Which may sound small and slow but like the mustard seed turns into something surprisingly big. Bigger than the Roman empire. And a lot lot nicer.

It’s a government you could believe in.